Let me make this clear from the start: I’m not expert—yet. This is about my journey so far. I knew as much as the average person (whoever that is) when I undertook this. Reading social media posts, I know there is a lot of confusion about editors and editing which I shared. I am not claiming to be an expert now. But I have learned a lot over the past year about starting an editing business.
Starting an editing business: My career-switch
Pre-editing, being a librarian was a big part of my identity. I enjoyed knowing where to find information. One of my favorite things about my job in public libraries was introducing readers to books they might enjoy. We called it “reader’s advisory.” But at the high school, I most loved helping students with research. But I also liked to concentrate, quietly, alone, especially on material selection.
I decided it was time to retire from my job in a high school library because it seemed the library was no longer valued as part of the educational environment. With testing of primary importance and students being given their own computers, many teachers felt coming to the library was too time-consuming. It seemed the trend was toward the library being used only to work with small groups or as a computer checkout hub. Neither of those interested me, so I decided it was time to explore something new.
After retiring, I spent a year in a community college taking classes. First I explored paralegal studies, then entrepreneurship, finally deciding that I should just go ahead and pursue my dream of being in book publishing. An editing business seemed like the perfect complement to that. But on exploring, I discovered there was a lot I didn’t know about publishing. So I decided to work on an editing certificate and a book at the same time. And so, “Library Lin Editing Service” was conceived.
One of the first things I did was buy books about editing. Then I started lurking on copyediting groups, subreddits, and hashtags on Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter. I finally worked up the courage to ask the Professional Editors + Business group on Facebook if a retired librarian was just being silly to think they could make a go of freelance editing. I had around seventy responses to my query. All those editors were helpful and encouraging. So I signed up for the University of California, San Diego’s copyediting certification program.
Confusion about editing
I also did a lot of social media research into freelance writers or just writers in general. I knew I wanted to focus on general nonfiction books so I followed writers and joined a few groups. On Reddit, particularly, it became clear that there is an awful lot of confusion about what editors do.
So I am using this post to try to shed a little light on the subject both for writers and for those who think they might like to begin an editing business. As I said at the beginning, I’m not an expert yet. For more information, I recommend consulting the blogs and books below. I also recommend the blog post on Jane Friedman’s blog “The Comprehensive Guide to Finding, Hiring, and Working with an Editor” by Chantel Hamilton. And for even more information, please see the KOK Edit: Copyeditor’s Knowledge Base.
My post is just going to skim the surface of the topic as I understand it. Feel free to send me a message if there is anything I should add.
What editors do
When people think of editors, they sometimes think of their middle or high school English teacher. They picture someone sitting at a desk using a red pen to mark up someone else’s work. And, actually, it can work that way. But not usually.
Levels of editing
Different publishing houses refer to types of editing by different terms, and there can be overlap between two types (developmental editors might do some substantive or line editing).
Developmental editing helps the writer shape the entire work as a whole. Developmental editors work with the author to decide what material goes into the book and what will be removed. They help determine the overall arc and arrangement of the book. Should it be in chronological order, by thematic topic, or something else? A developmental editor may determine the number and length of the chapters.
Substantive and line editing focuses more on the paragraph level. These editors consider issues like would information placed at the beginning of the chapter make more sense if moved to the end? Do sentences need to be rearranged for clarity? Do whole sections need to be moved to an appendix or removed entirely? Line editors might do a bit of copyediting as well, but that is not their primary focus.
Copyediting relies on a style manual and focuses primarily on the sentence level. Copyeditors may correct some things at the paragraph level (like a line editor) but that is not usually the primary focus. Copy editors want to make sure each sentence is grammatically correct, and that the spellings are correct or consistent if variant spellings are used. They make sure numbers, abbreviations, and acronyms are correct. They also check all front and back matter in the book for correctness and consistency and do the same for any illustrative matter. They go over the writing to be sure the message the author is trying to convey is clear.
Proofreaders read over the material once the type is set. By that point, tinkering with the text can be expensive. So proofreaders make sure there are no typos, misspellings, or egregious grammar errors, and they make sure that capitalization and punctuation are correct.
How do you become an editor?
Like everything else, publishing has changed tremendously over the past few decades, particularly by the unbounded changes in technology. Up until fifteen or so years ago, most editors got their start either with publishing houses or in newspapers or magazines. Typically these people had college degrees in journalism or English. But it was also possible to get started with only a high school diploma. Talented young people were sometimes hired out of high school or community colleges and trained on the job to proofread or copyedit after working in other capacities for the firm.
But when things started to go digital, publishers, like many industries, consolidated into a few massive houses (commonly called the big five) and a larger number of smaller publishers (with 5-500 employees). Many of these publishing houses no longer have in-house copyeditors; instead, they rely on freelancers.
So how are the freelancers trained? Unlike some positions like teaching or hairdressing, there are no universal requirements. Many editing freelancers were trained in publishing houses. They left to become freelancers because they wanted more control over clients, rates, and work-life balance. These folks may find it easier to build a client base because of past contacts. And since they have experience in the industry, they understand it intimately.
For those of us never fortunate enough to work in publishing, it is still possible to break into the editing business. But breaking into the industry is a bit trickier. Personally, I am a big believer in taking editing classes. Editing, like any other endeavor, needs to be performed to a high standard. Getting A’s in high school English classes is not enough.
I got my copyediting certificate at the University of California, San Diego’s Extension. The program, in my opinion, was top-notch. Of course I can’t compare it to the UC, Berkley program or the University of Chicago program. I chose UCSD because it was less expensive and because it was recommended by the kind folks in the editing group on Facebook. Copyediting certification programs are also available in Canada, the UK, and other countries.
I was pleased with my training. At the time of this writing, the program charges $595.00 for each ten-week class. Four courses are required so you can get your certificate in a year or less. These classes include the Grammar Lab, Copyediting I (Light Copyediting), Copyediting II (Medium Copyediting), and Copyediting III (Heavy Copyediting, which is more like substantive editing).
It’s crucial to understand grammar intimately. And English grammar is not simple. And because it’s always changing, I have come to understand that I will be a grammar student for the rest of my life.
If grammar is the foundation, style manuals are like the ground floor to a copyeditor. Without them, you have no guidance on thousands of issues like how and when to capitalize “president” or whether is use 5 or spell out “five” for the number. Our program used The Chicago Manual of Style (which is approximately 1,500 pages long) to train us to use style manuals. Once you’ve mastered CMOS, the reasoning goes, you can master any style manual. You can see a short list of recommended style manuals in my blog post “The Parts of a Nonfiction Book: A Detailed List for Writers.”
If you can’t devote a year and roughly $2400.00 for classes at a university, you can also take classes through organizations like the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) and the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA). There are other editorial organizations all over the world that offer classes. They are less expensive and teach many of the same things UCSD did, albeit, probably in less depth.
The types of materials that need editing are vast. Do you have a bachelor degree in biology? You could specialize in scientific papers, journal articles, books, or blogs. Are you a paralegal? You could specialize in editing legal writing. Even a generalist (someone who will edit anything) can branch off into other services like indexing, fact-checking, permissions gathering, or formatting.
Where editors work
You can edit anywhere. You can be a freelance editor and live a nomadic lifestyle if you have access to the internet. Or at least you’ll be able to when travel becomes less restricted than it is right now. But in broad terms, people in the editing business work in two basic places: for publishing companies or as freelancers. These two can also be combined.
Editors can apply to work for publishing companies just like you would apply for any other job. You build a resume or a CV and start applying. If you’re hired to work in-house, you will need to move to the company’s location. Applying for an internship might be a good way to get your foot in a publisher’s door. Some of these pay and some don’t. Some can even be done remotely. One place to check for internships is bookjobs.org.
Freelancers (Work from home)
Freelancers run their own businesses, contracting out their services. They can work for publishing houses, one job at a time, they can be part of a publisher’s pool of freelancers, they can work for journals, newspapers, indie authors, nonprofit organizations, or for companies editing websites and blogs. The difference is, they are generally paid by the job and they do the work on their own time without the benefits or responsibilities of a full-time employee.
One of the complaints I see on social media about freelance editors is the cost. People seem surprised and irritated by the cost of editing. Part of the reason is simple: editors have to earn a living. Most people wouldn’t expect a teenager to babysit their children for less than ten dollars an hour. And while some editors charge by the word, they are usually looking to make a base amount per hour for their labor. And unless the manuscript is exceptionally clean, it really does require labor.
Unless you get someone who hasn’t been trained, most editors have a college degree. If you add the extensive, arcane knowledge you are expecting an editor to apply to your work, you are asking a specialist to put hours into your manuscript. It can easily, depending on the length of the work and the amount of work it needs, turn into forty or more hours to complete.
A book that is poorly edited or not edited at all is less likely to draw positive reviews, less likely to win awards, and less likely to get traction in the market. It’s not an unnecessary expense, it’s an investment in your book’s success.
Considering the time and expense editors put into their training and their continuing education, you are better off paying a good one what they are worth. Editors don’t just check the grammar and punctuation marks. They make sure your work will communicate the message you want it to communicate in a manner that will draw respect from your audience. I am saving up to hire a good editor if I decide to self-publish my book when I am finished with it.
Running your own editing business gives you the advantage of the freedom to choose jobs that appeal to you. You can sleep late or knock off early if you need to. As long as you work gets done and you clients are happy all is well.
As a freelancer just getting started, I’d say a disadvantage is possible difficulty in building up a stream of clients. It’s a competitive field and it can be hard to stand out.
By doing both, I’m actually talking about freelancing. Freelancers can become part of a publisher’s pool of copy editors if they prove themselves competent and professional. But in between projects from publishers, you can also work for indie authors or for businesses. You can get work from students.
Without contacts in the publishing industry, my method has been to cold query these companies. It’s been slow going. Cover letters and resumes must be tweaked for the recipient and they must be mistake-free. After all, if you are looking to meticulously check someone’s work, but you miss a mistake in your own materials, why would they have confidence in you? And since I don’t have a lot of professional experience yet, I am offering to take any tests the publisher may want me to take. I’m confident I’ll pass those.
So I am hopeful. All it takes is one “yes” and I’ll be on my way. Meanwhile, I’m still working on getting work from indie writers and I’m working on my own book. It may take a while, but I have patience.
The blogs and books listed below are for more information on publishing, editing, and running an editing business.
Recommended books on editing
- The Copyeditor’s Handbook, 4th ed. by Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz
- What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing edited by Peter Ginna
- The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller
- The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper by Richard Adin
- The Editor’s Companion: An Indispensable Guide to Editing Books, Magazines, Online Publications, and More by Steve Dunham
Do you think copyediting may be for you?
Explore the blogs and books I listed above. If you have any other questions for me, fill out the form below.
If you’re a writer and have work you’d like for me to copyedit for you, send me a message. My goal is to help you make your work the best it can be. We can discuss the level of editing you might need and I will complete a sample for free. Professional editing is an investment well worth your time and money.
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