It’s been just over a year since I registered as self-employed and ‘officially’ became a freelance editor and in that time I’ve picked up a few useful tips and hints to share with the rest of you.
First a little backstory: I had been dabbling with the idea of freelance editing for about a year beforehand, getting a few low paying jobs here and there but otherwise being bogged down with other things that actually weren’t remotely important. I was working a crappy job that I hated which held me back even more. Although the hours were part time, I was so physically and emotionally drained that it felt like a full time job. When I got home all I wanted to do was eat Doritos and watch My Little Pony and I had no energy for advancing my freelance business.
Early last year I was fired from that job (a customer swindled money out of my till, which I still think wasn’t my fault). I felt depressed for a few hours but cheered up quickly when I realised the opportunity that had been given to me. I thought ‘If I’m serious about this freelance copyeditor thing, I have to do it now’. It was either that or take whatever crummy job the Jobcenter handed me next.
Back then, I calculated how long my savings would last if I made no money at all and they would’ve run out in October. Well it’s April now and while my finances aren’t excellent, I have enough to get by. There have been a lot of ups and downs since then, so I wanted to share the most valuable lessons I’ve learnt.
1. Don’t rely on low paying bid sites.
When I was a wee little freelance sapling and stumbled upon bid sites, I thought ‘this is great! People put up book editing jobs and I just bid on them. Sure there’s a lot of competition but if I bid on enough jobs I’m sure to get some.’ Of course, things that seem too good to be true always are. I must have bid on hundreds of jobs on bid sites and gotten exactly two jobs. The first was more work than advertised and thus very low paid and with the second I forgot about the international Paypal fee.
One freelance writer calculated that each freelancer on a bid site earns approximately $100 per year from the site. Once I realised this, I very quickly moved onto more lucrative markets.
2. Don’t be afraid of big clients.
Once I moved away from the dreaded bid sites and started sending speculative e-mails to publishers, I avoided all the established publishing houses. I thought that they must already have proofreaders and editors on staff and won’t hire a newbie like me so I should stick to smaller indie presses. While these publishers were always kind to me in their reply e-mails, they didn’t have the budget to hire freelancers. Maybe getting to know them will pay off in the long run when these companies grow, but it didn’t do much good in the short term.
When I finally started contacting the ‘bigger’ publishers, success! I was getting noticed!
3. The first year is character development.
It would be easy to look back on this past year and feel depressed about all the mistakes I made and how far I still am from the place I ultimately want to be, but I decided not to. Instead I like to think of this past year as my character development year – like the part of the book where the hero develops into a stronger, better person thanks to all the obstacles they face.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes and had a lot of setbacks, but that’s to be expected of a new freelancer. While I’m still developing, like any good story character, that means I’m on the right path.
4. Read a good book.
What can you do to get over these discouraging times? At the end of last year, I had just lost a chance of landing a major client and was feeling very depressed and considering giving it all up. I didn’t even want to visit my family for Christmas as I felt like such a loser. But I got Tim Ferris’ The 4 hour work week as a gift and after reading it, I felt so much better.
I think we all need a little motivation now and then. Someone to say ‘hey it’s ok. You’re doing fine. Keep going.’ That’s the feeling you get from reading a good book.
5. Don’t take shots in the dark.
My schedule at the beginning was non existent. It felt great to wake up in the morning and think ‘what am I going to do today?’ but it was ultimately getting nowhere. It was only after I started planning my schedule for the week and even for the month that stuff actually started happening and getting done. The trouble with just doing whatever is that you can waste time doing all the easy but non-important things while the important but hard and scary things go neglected.
6. You may already have the skills you need.
I thought that I would work as a proofreader for a few years then naturally progress into copyediting. But then when I actually took a copyediting job, I found that I was amazingly good at it. It was what I had been doing at university for three years, and had never even realised. So now I focus mainly on book editing, because it’s what I should have been doing all along.
7. Find your niche.
In the first few months when I read advice saying ‘who is your ideal client?’ my answer was ‘whoever will pay me.’ And yes, when you’re just starting out you should take any and every opportunity that comes your way to beef up your portfolio and keep your bank balance healthy. But I think that even from the start, freelancers should have a picture of their ideal clients and decide their niche, as it will help them get to the place they want to be.
I quickly decided that I didn’t want to spend my whole life editing CV’s and business documents. My main love and passion in life is fantasy fiction. I’m an amateur fantasy writer myself so I know and understand the genre and it’s writers well. That’s why I’ve retooled my entire website to appeal to this market, and hopefully provide some fun and useful articles for these writers too.
8. Stick to a few marketing methods that work.
I listened to some of Ryan Eliason’s online lectures last month and one of the best pieces of advice I got was to stick to only three marketing methods. I wish I had heard this advice earlier. I can’t tell you the amount of time and money I’ve sunk into marketing that delivered nothing back in return. It’s so much easier and more profitable to find the few places where your ideal clients hang out and go there. If it turns out one of my chosen methods doesn’t work then I’ll switch to another until I find a good one.
9. Most advice sucks.
This is true for most things, not just freelancing. It’s because the internet has given us such an information overload that it’s hard to know who to listen to. While there are plenty of people giving out great advice for free, there are tonnes of hacks putting out e-books to make a quick buck.
I’m an obsessive book reader so whenever I want to learn something new my first move is to go to the library and take out every book they have on the subject. I read a lot of good freelancing advice but I also wasted a lot of time that once again could’ve been spent finding clients.
So how do I find this useful advice? I eliminate anything for beginners since I’ve read all that now and have, I hope, progressed from beginner status. I tend to go for books that have been recommended by a source I trust, such as a writer who has previously helped me.
10. Don’t give up.
This is the most obvious piece of advice but the hardest to follow. Often I do want to do nothing but eat Doritos and watch My Little Pony, and it would be so easy to go back to working at the poundshop but I think future me wouldn’t be happy with me for doing that, so I keep on going for her sake.
In just a few months time I’m moving abroad so that my fiancé can get his master’s degree. It’s a whole new adventure and scary to think about, but I really want to try it. Not just try, but succeed!
Fellow freelancers, what useful lessons did you learn in your first year that you want to share with newbies?