We’ve previously looked at how to get started as a self-employed writer or proofreader. But there’s a third option which combines elements of both careers, so why not take a look at how to become a freelance editor.
While you might associate the term with running a newspaper, in this case it refers to reading, reviewing and correcting text for publication. The more accurate comparison would be with the newsroom role of sub-editors. While writers and journalists will create original copy, and proofreaders check for issues including grammar, editors are responsible for the flow and style of the text, which can involve deleting, restructuring and rewriting.
What type of freelance editor can you become?
Any writing can benefit from the involvement of an editor. But different skills are needed at various stages of the process, particular if you’re developing a book or other long-form content for publication.
While the exact definitions and the roles carried out by each type of freelance editor can blur and cross over, specialising in an area means you can focus more on the type of work you enjoy the most.
- Commissioning Editors: Responsible for finding books and articles for publication, by watching market trends, soliciting ideas and looking at whether proposals will be right for their target audience.
- Developmental Editors: Helps writers and authors to work on the big picture of their work, focusing on structure, organisation, and flow, so that everything lines up and makes sense from beginning to end. They’ll work on ideas and rough outlines to bring everything together into a coherent story.
- Evaluation Editors: Also known as structural or substantive editors, they provide the same constructive insight as developmental editors, but on a written manuscript which needs improving.
- Copy Editors: Also known as line editors, or sub-editors for newspapers and magazines, they cover everything from fact checking and grammar, to structure and flow. There’s a large amount of crossover between line editors, who tend to focus more on the language, sentence length and eliminating unnecessary fluff, and copy editors, who are looking more for spelling and grammar issues. Meanwhile subs are expected to do everything, normally with a short deadline before a paper or magazine goes to press.
- SEO Editor: Increasingly websites are incorporating a review of any content going online to ensure it’s delivered with search engine optimisation in mind. This includes on-page content, and any associated metadata.
Other roles which you might encounter include Associate or Section Editors who acquire and review material for newspapers, magazines or websites, with a responsibility for a particular area. Contributing Editors tend to submit work regularly to a title and generally have a bit more freedom to choose what they’re focusing on than writers or journalists. Most websites or publications will have an Editor (or Chief Editor) to lead the title, and might also have an Editor-in-Chief to oversee the editorial team, including the other editors.
The other side of defining your career as a freelance editor will be to think about the industry or niche you may want to specialise in. You may want to become an academic, technical or legal editor, focus on science fiction, or be the first choice if anyone needs someone to edit cookbooks.
What does a freelance editor do?
At the broadest level, all freelance editors are hired to take text and make it better. Whether that’s by commissioning, developing, evaluating or editing the copy itself. But importantly, a good editor can fix and enhance an article or book – without destroying the message, tone and character of the original author.
Whether the corrections are marked up on paper with a red pen for a writer to correct, or the changes are made by the editor themselves, any alterations will be aimed at meeting the in-house style rules, fixing grammatical issues, or to improve the clarity and impact. Not to rewrite large chunks of content for the sake of it.
Ultimately the differences between roles are that all editors need to have a good understanding of the writing process, stylistic and grammar rules, and ultimately, what makes for a great read. But commissioning and section editors will focus more on scheduling and management of writers to ensure a constant supply of books and articles. Developmental and Evaluation editors will spend their time on story structure and flow. And Copy Editors, Subs and SEO Editors will all be spending their days going through text in detail.
Editing copy will involve checking headlines and subheadings for clarity and impact (including potentially optimising them for search engines or sharing on social media), ensuring there’s a strong introduction and conclusion, and that all required topics are covered.
It also means avoiding too many long, run-on sentences which can become too wordy and confusing when they rely on multiple commas and other punctuation. And cutting out unnecessary waffle, finding alternatives for repetitive words and phrases, or spotting when a spell checker has missed the wrong term because it’s spelt correctly.
What skills, qualifications or experience do you need?
Freelance editors, writers and proofreaders all need to enjoy working with words and language, and have a good understanding of common grammatical rules and conventions.
You’ll also need the skills of any successful self-employed person to build contacts, deliver projects on time, and manage invoicing etc.
The other knowledge you need will depend on any specialisms you want to pursue. If you’re a Developmental Editor for fiction novels, it requires an understanding of storytelling conventions and tropes, like ‘The Hero’s Journey’ for example. Whereas a Copy Editor for a fishing website would need to know as much as possible about angling. And while it’s possible to research and learn the subjects required, it’s always easier if it’s something you have at least a little interest in.
It’s possible to become a freelance editor without any specific academic qualifications or professional certification. But it will be more difficult to persuade clients to trust you, especially if you’re starting out with no previous experience or projects. The majority of Editors will have a degree level qualification in English, Journalism, or related humanities subjects.
There are a range of training courses if you want to become a freelance editor, and these are offered at various levels, including post-graduate training and beyond. The most important part of choosing the right course is checking if it’s offered or accredited by a recognised organisation which will be appreciated by potential clients. Examples include the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), the British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME), or companies including the Press Association.
Beyond your qualifications, the most essential thing to secure client work is being able to demonstrate relevant experience. This could come from working in staff editorial roles (which often require degree level qualifications, even for entry-level positions), by freelancing as a writer while you learn the editing process, or by finding individuals or businesses willing to give you a start. And if you’re struggling to find an outlet willing to publish your work, or let you demonstrate your editing skills, then the easiest way to start building your reputation is by self-publishing on your own website, or on various online platforms.
Many of the best-known and most respected writers and editors began by creating their own fanzines, blogs or websites. And if it takes off, you might have started your self-employed business without even needing to take on clients!
How much can a freelance editor earn?
All estimates of the average wage for a freelance editor will be rough guidelines, as the amount you earn will depend on your reputation, negotiation skills, general demand, and the industry or niche you might specialise in.
For example, it’s relatively easy for publishers and clients to find editors wanting to work in areas like film, music or gaming. But finding someone with the qualifications and knowledge to edit legal textbooks or medical research will be more difficult, and require higher rates for the right candidate.
As a broad guide, the average base pay for a freelance editor in the UK is estimated at £29,439 by Glassdoor, £35,989 by Indeed, and £48,750 by Talent.com. That’s broadly equivalent to the incomes you might expect for staff jobs, depending on the publisher and market you’re working in.
You can find client projects advertised on general freelancing websites, specialist media outlets including Journalism.co.uk, JournoResources, or HoldtheFrontPage. There are also email newsletters which deliver a collection of opportunities to your inbox, including Freelance Writing Jobs curated by Sian Meades-Williams, who previously shared her tips with us on how freelancers can stay focused.
Many of these requests have been collated from Twitter, which is where many freelance writers, journalists and editors spend a lot of their time. Of all the social networks, it’s the one which appeals to people who want to know everything going on, and then share their opinions in a beautiful crafted and pithy one or two lines. Which makes it a great way to meet other writers and editors, get advice, and potentially find client referrals.
Useful links and resources for freelance editors
- The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading
- The British Society of Magazine Editors
- Press Association Training
- Freelance Writing Jobs
Researching other freelance careers? Why not check out our other guides:
- How to become a freelance photographer
- How to become a freelance web designer
- How to become a freelance writer
- How to become a freelance Virtual Assistant (VA)
- How to become a freelance SEO consultant
- How to become a freelance structural engineer
- How to become a freelance business analyst
- How to become a freelance event planner or organiser
- How to become a freelance coach
- How to become a freelance proofreader
- How to become a freelance bookkeeper
- How to become a freelance content creator
- How to become a freelance illustrator
- How to become a freelance hair stylist
- How to become a freelance recruiter
- How to become a freelance translator
- How to become a freelance photojournalist
- How to become a freelance music producer
- How to become a freelance WordPress developer
- How to become an author
- How to become a freelance tutor
- How to become a freelance makeup artist
- How to become a freelance animator
- How to become a freelance photo editor
- How to become a freelance model
- How to become a freelance digital marketer
- How to become a freelance network engineer
And you can get support and help if you’re starting out with self-employment, or still in the early stages of building your career, with the IPSE Incubator. The 12-month programme is currently free with IPSE membership, and includes advice, events, webinars, networking and more, tailored to anyone just beginning their freelance business.