How I Became an Editor (and What I’ve Learned)

As I open my freelance editing services for the year, I wanted to talk a bit about how that branch of my business got started, some of the things I’ve learned along the way, and my values as an editor.

Over the years, I’ve had people ask me about how I got started because they’re interested in starting freelance editing businesses of their own, so I thought it would be helpful to put all of that information together in one place and touch on some details I haven’t always brought up in those discussions.

I’ve also talked to authors who don’t have much experience in finding editors who are a good fit for their work (and I’ve been that author, myself), and I hope that this post gives insight into what to look for (and what to avoid).

So without further ado, let’s get into it.

Reading with an Editor’s Eye

I’ve been asked whether I always liked editing, and I do think I’ve always liked critiquing things. I know I’ve always loved opportunities to encourage authors and help them strengthen their stories wherever I’m able! I’m a naturally analytical person, I can generally pull out the good and the bad in a project somewhat instinctively, so I’m often giving some sort of mental critique to anything I read–even if that “critique” is only pulling out the really skillful lines because whatever I’m reading is well-written.

I started really exercising that tendency for any useful purpose when I started beta-reading a long while back, and I enjoyed that process. I was in online writing groups where writers would occasionally ask for beta-readers for XYZ project, and I got into a habit of volunteering. I didn’t always finish those projects, but I practiced on several books that way and I did finish maybe half of them. (Don’t worry; I don’t carelessly drop projects anymore! I’ll talk about consistency a little later.)

Over the years, with more beta-reading experience and more regular reading experience with indie books, I figured out that I really love line editing. I love to tweak prose so that it’s stronger and conveys its meaning even better. I love catching small inconsistencies. I love just taking what’s there and smoothing it out so that it’s at its most effective and the reader doesn’t trip over it. I enjoy proofreading for somewhat similar reasons, and because I’m really good at catching those detail mistakes in someone else’s work. (Authors I’ve worked with have said so; that’s not just me puffing myself up, lol.) While I do also notice some bigger-picture weaknesses when I read, those issues don’t stand out to me with as much consistency; they take a lot more work to look for, if I want to be thorough on that level.

In short, I always liked editing, and I enjoyed it more and more as I figured out what I’m good at and where my passion lies.

A Desire to Help Indies

While I’d enjoyed casually beta-reading, the thought of starting an editing business didn’t really arise until I got deeper into the indie publishing world. A read a lot of indie books that were excellent where the big-picture elements were concerned but had awkward prose or were riddled with grammatical errors. (One book was so poorly edited I actually took red pen to it. Most were just a little awkward.) The big picture was great; the details to communicate and accentuate that big picture just needed a bit more fine-tuning.

I valued these indie authors (still do), and it pained me to see their books just lacking the one final polish that would allow their readers to be fully immersed in the story, so I started to think… I’d already been “editing” these books in my head: pulling out the strengths and weaknesses, thinking up smoother sentences, correcting improper punctuation, etc. Why not become an editor and put myself in a position to actually help these authors before their books went out? I knew that as an indie author myself, I would want to work with an editor to smooth over those rough spots!

The concept of starting an editing business was highly driven by this appreciation for indie publishing and the authors within that community. I value giving indie authors good editing options and a professional experience, and I do my best to provide that on my own part; I hope I succeed. I think it’s important to give authors options that suit their writing style and story, with quality feedback, which is another guiding principle of how I select projects to take on and my goals for referrals. But more on that later.

If you think we might be a good fit, check out my line editing services!

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Getting Started & Accountability

I didn’t have any official qualifications when I got started–in fact, I still don’t. I do plan to go through a certificate program at some point, and I think it is critical to have some sort of feedback from someone who knows their stuff before you get started. For me, this feedback came from my parents, both of whom are editors in some capacity. Their experience allowed them to know when I was really good enough to edit for other authors.

I do think a certificate program is a good idea, if and when you’re in a position to go through one, because it will not only put a rubber stamp on your skills but also refresh any knowledge you might be missing without realizing it. (For the same reason, it’s really helpful to keep something like the Chicago Manual of Style on hand so you can double-check things if you’re not sure about them.)

After getting the green light on your general editorial know-how, I recommend editing a handful of projects in exchange for testimonials. Especially if you don’t do something like a certificate program (or a whole course/degree, for that matter), it helps to have some honest reviews upfront so that prospective customers know what to expect–and so that you know how good you actually are and where your strengths and weaknesses lie.

If I recall correctly, I edited two short stories, a novella, and two novels before officially launching my business (not counting beta-reading projects). I have testimonials from four of those. Besides getting that social proof for my business, working on projects as if they were actually my job helped me figure out some of my weak spots.

Pricing & Payment

Once I was ready to officially open my editing business in 2018, I researched the average pricing for freelance editing services. I based my own pricing on the low end of those estimates for two reasons:

1) I was just starting out, so I knew I still had a lot of room to grow in comparison to more established editors.

2) Since my core audience is made up of indie authors on low budgets, I wanted to keep my pricing affordable.

I can’t remember what data went into my initial decision to charge per page vs. per word; I know that was also based on my research, but I didn’t keep my receipts, so to speak. That said, I can tell you why I’m glad now that I operate on that model. For one thing, again, per-page rates are more affordable for authors. The same book will usually cost less by a couple hundred dollars if you work with an editor who charges per page instead of per word. Secondly, it’s simpler for me to keep track of my progress in pages as I’m working, so it helps me to keep the focus on page count rather than word count.

I don’t have my original pricing written down (I wish I’d thought ahead at the time), but the most I charged per page was $3 and I was charging the most for developmental edits, then line edits, then copy-edits. The earliest pricing I have record of was when I started promoting my services in 2020: $2/page each for line edits and copy-edits or $3/page for both. Since I had figured out what I was good at, I eliminated developmental editing from my roster and raised my copy-editing prices.

In 2022, I adjusted again to highlight my line editing services–and to align with the market standard of charging more for line edits than copy-edits. At that point, I kept the $2/page price for line edits, lowered my copy-editing price to $1/page, and made the combined service $2.50/page.

My last price change was at the beginning of 2023, after working with more clients and discovering that copy-editing takes more energy from me if I’m not also doing line edits. I also did more research on current pricing–since the last I’d looked at standard pricing had been five years prior–and discovered that I was way undercharging by the market standard. Now that I had more work under my belt, I wanted my pricing to better reflect that experience and skill. I still aimed for the lower end of the current average–still wanting to keep my pricing accessible–and my pricing is now $4/page for line edits with $2/page to add-on copy-edits (which are no longer available as a standalone service).

But let me distill this into some useful tips:

1. Know the current market standard, at least when you’re starting out, and check in on it periodically. This not only includes knowing what is generally charged for your kind(s) of edits, but also knowing things like the fact that editing prices are tiered based on type, with developmental edits costing the most, line edits in the middle, and copy-edits at the bottom.

Don’t check these standards obsessively; if your pricing works for you, don’t try to change it every year or something. That said, it may be helpful to know where you stand in the market on a yearly basis or so even if you make a rule to only change your pricing every 3-5 years or with a significant change in your services.

2. It’s okay to try different pricing options when you’re starting out to see what works. I know I just said not to change your pricing every year, right after showing that I changed mine in 2018, 2020, 2022, and 2023. When you’re getting started, you might not know what you need to charge, or what is reasonable to charge, and it is okay to experiment until you find out. Just make sure that you settle in one place for long enough to actually find out whether or not it works. This settling includes marketing your services, working with authors, etc.; if you’re not doing that (at least the marketing), then you’re not actually testing your pricing.

3. Your experience level should affect your pricing. Cost is one marker by which authors can tell whether or not you’re an experienced, professional, high-quality editor. This does not mean that cost is a universal signal, that expensive editors always know what they’re doing and cheap editors are always bad at their job. However, it can be a helpful indicator when taken with additional data. So when you’re just starting out, you might do well to charge less; you’ll build up your experience and reputation with lower-budget authors, and you’ll make some money while you learn your lingering strengths and weaknesses on the job. Once you get some more projects under your belt and you shore up your weak spots, you can increase your prices. This applies to different types of editing, as well; if you have more skill or experience in one or two areas, charge more for those than for areas in which you’re weaker; make sure that you are paying back on the investment that authors are putting in for your services. (If you’re a lot weaker in one area than another, consider whether you should really be offering that service or if you should pare down to your strengths.)

As a side note for anyone wondering, I use PayPal invoices for payments and it has worked really well for me so far.

Staying Focused

When I was beta-reading, it was a hobby. I read things when I had the time, and sometimes I let myself drop projects due to lost interest or procrastinate so long that I missed the author’s deadline. Initially, I brought that same attitude into editing. While I tried to combat it some, procrastination was still an issue.

When you’re doing something as a prospective job, it puts a new perspective on things. I realized as I was working on projects for testimonials that I was not prioritizing these projects–or their authors–and I was not doing a good job of paying back these authors for what they’d invested in me (at that point, their time and projects).

What I learned is that it’s really important to see editing as a high priority. If you really want to edit for someone and you want to return on the investment the author has put into you—especially once they’re paying you—you have to decide to set aside time to do it. The first step is to just make that decision and say “I’m going to get this done by the deadline.”

But there are factors that can help an editor keep on task. Knowing how long a chapter normally takes you and/or knowing how much time you can set aside for editing in a given day is a good step, because that allows you to space out your work realistically. From there you can set yourself a deadline. I know that it usually takes me about 15-30 minutes to edit a chapter (depending on the book/length of the chapters) and I can dedicate about 1-2 hours to editing before I need a change of pace. This means I can generally edit a full-length novel within a month, if the average chapter count is around 40 chapters, and I don’t normally have to do more than two chapters a day. This also leaves me buffer space if I’ve procrastinated even for a few days in a row. Knowing how much time it takes and setting aside that time are crucial points in setting realistic deadlines for yourself and establishing a consistent turnaround time.

I’m generally energized enough from editing that the excitement of getting to work with an author on their book helps to keep me going, but when a project takes more energy than it returns or when I’m just having an off day I have to rely on the discipline of, “Okay, I can survive two chapters today. Let’s do this.”

Communication

Communication is critical in an author-editor relationship. For example, if something comes up or it’s just been a rough season and you can’t meet the deadline, communicate that with the author you’re working with. Make sure they know there’s going to be a delay, and give them a new deadline to expect from you. The two novels I edited for testimonials both took me far longer than they should have; one of them I communicated well on and the other I didn’t communicate about at all. The end results were drastically different. The project on which I communicated did eventually get finished, albeit wayyyy later than was reasonable, and the author provided a glowing review of my work. I never got to finish the other project, because the author locked me out of the document before I could finish (which was totally her prerogative since I didn’t deliver within the deadline I’d promised). Safe to say, I was always very careful to keep to my deadlines and communicate with authors after that! Communication and honesty are super important. People understand delays, as long as you’re clear about them.

You should also communicate clearly about what you offer, how your pricing works, what your feedback will generally look like (editing samples are great for this), what genres you are or are not experienced in, when you have a problem with the project partway through, when you don’t understand something about their book, etc. Strong communication will save both you and the author a lot of headache and bad blood down the road.

Also, follow-up is really important. If you book a sample edit, make sure you get the document, and make sure that they get your edits back. If you haven’t heard back from them in a couple of days, reach out. Don’t wait a week. Don’t be pushy, but make sure that they have the edited document and try to set a date for working out pricing on a full project or clearly parting ways. (I speak from experience. You can lose clients by making an error in returning a sample and not rectifying the issue in a timely manner.) If you’ve gone past the date that was set for them to send you their draft, check in and see if you can set up a new start date. Sometimes authors have lost track of time, sometimes they need an extension, and you can graciously handle either situation with a polite follow-up.

If you’re an author, you should absolutely be looking for an editor who will communicate with you clearly. If the editor can’t tell you why they operate a certain way or why they made a particular suggestion, if you reach out to them and they take forever to respond (say, more than a week in business days) without explanation or apology, if they don’t seem to listen to your explanations or concerns, etc., it may be time to find another editor (for the next book, if not this one). Do have grace, because sometimes editors just have something going on, but a good editor won’t just leave you in the lurch without some explanation.

My Values as an Editor

A lot of these values have been alluded to or mentioned previously in the post, but I want to clearly lay out some of the values that I do my best to operate by as an editor–most of which I think are also qualities to seek out in an editor if you’re an author.

1. Affordability for young and indie authors

I know firsthand how expensive it can be to hire out editing for a book, especially as a young author, and that editing is only one expense on a long list for an indie author. I think it’s a worthwhile expense, and I think it’s important to value what editors do by appropriately compensating their work, but I don’t want to put more expense on an author than I reasonably have to.

In my business, I do my best to balance charging what I think my services are worth and maintaining prices that aren’t astronomical for authors.

2. Focusing on my skills & prioritizing the author’s needs

I think it’s important for editors to recognize their strengths and focus there. Honestly, I don’t think that most editors (younger editors, at least) should try to offer every type of edits, because most of us just don’t actually have the skill in all of those areas to really do them well. For my part, developmental edits are really not my strong suit, so I don’t offer them. I focus on line editing and copy-editing because I know I can do them well, and editing well is a better service to authors than editing broadly and trying to be a one-stop shop.

Focusing on my strengths isn’t something I do just to keep from becoming frustrated (though it’s good for that, too); it’s one way in which I prioritize the needs of the authors I work with. If an author comes to me needing developmental edits, my job is not to say, “Yeah, I can do that!” and do a half-baked job of it; my job is to send them to a really good developmental editor and invite them to come back when they’re ready for line edits and/or copy-edits.

When people hire me as a line editor, I will still sometimes suggest they go to a developmental editor first if I see a lot of structural issues in the book. If they choose not to and ask me to continue with line edits, then I’ll do my best with the line edit and send an email at the end with some additional feedback related to the developmental issues I saw, as well as patterns I saw in my line edits. This feedback is for them to do with as they will (just like all of it), but I think I would be remiss as an editor to neglect mentioning areas I see for improvement. It’s always my goal to work with the author to make their story the strongest it can be, and I want to do everything in my power to that end.

This also means that it’s a high priority for me to understand the heart and voice of any project I work on. My job as a line editor is to hone an author’s prose to best convey the story they’re telling, and this means I have to make their voice shine and make suggestions that support their purpose for the story. If I don’t get why they chose the pacing they did, or why the writing style is so old-timey, or what sort of difficulties their characters are going through, and I try to make changes to those aspects without that understanding, then I’m not going to do a good job of editing for them. I might comment on some of these things and ask why they made that choice, but it’s not my job to change large elements of their book; it’s my job to enhance what they’ve written.

3. Accountability and quality

It’s very easy to get started as a freelance editor. If you have a strong social media presence, it’s easy to get noticed as a freelance editor. That does not mean that every entrepreneurial author out there is actually cut out to be an editor. Are some of them? Absolutely. I know several. I also know a few whom I would not seek out to edit my work.

This is why I think it’s super important to have accountability from someone (ideally multiple people) with experience before you get started–and to take feedback from those with experience as you continue in your business. Take a certificate program; get feedback from established editors who have both good reviews and strong results; get a lot of honest feedback from authors as you accumulate testimonials. And if you’re not ready yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean editing is something you should never pursue; it just needs to need to put in more practice and learning first.

I also think it’s important to practice quality in all aspects of your business. Don’t advertise yourself as an editor and then leave most of your business’s social media posts littered with typos. Yes, typos slip through; it happens, and everyone understands. But you should have a habit of posts that are clean of typos. It’s hard to trust an editor when their own social media, website, books, etc., aren’t edited well.

4. Being teachable

It’s important for an editor (especially a young one) to be teachable. We need to be able to admit that we don’t know something, and it’s important that we know how to find answers. We need to be able to learn rules we didn’t know before, to work within the standards of different countries as appropriate (UK spelling, anyone?), to take advice and feedback from other authors and editors, etc. Otherwise, we’re going to be bad editors and–more importantly–stay bad editors. A bad editor only becomes a good editor by being teachable and growing in their weak areas.

5. Generosity

It’s important to me to give authors as much as I can. This is why my concluding emails include things like bigger-picture issues I spotted and patterns I picked up on about their writing style (including strengths they can build on) and their common pitfalls. It’s also part of the reason that I pray for the authors I work with and for their projects, and pray that I do an effective job of strengthening the story God has given them to tell. It’s why I support authors’ books beyond the editing process by celebrating their publication, buying completed copies, and/or featuring them on my social media or in my emails.

I see editing as an investment in an author and their work. That means that I give my top attention to my editing projects whenever possible, I do what I can to encourage the authors I work with and give them what tools I have to help them succeed, I try to think long-term as well as focus on the exact project at hand, and I cover all of it in prayer because I know only God provides the clarity and wisdom needed to shape these books into the final draft He intends.

Want to work with me? Submit your query today!

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Growing as I Go

In all of this, I’m still learning and growing. I’ve learned a lot through failure; I’ve learned some by thinking ahead. I’ve learned things like, “Always double-check that the right document went through,” and, “Keep an email template to work from when you send a project back so you don’t get so carried away with excitement over the book that you forget to mention the closing payment.” A lot of what I’ve learned, I couldn’t have learned by anything but experience, and I know that I’ll continue to learn a lot more as the years go on and I work with more authors on more projects.

There are projects I haven’t served as well as I could–either because I didn’t do my best then or because I’ve grown and could simply do better now–and unfortunately you sometimes just have to let that go, knowing that you did your best with XYZ project but you can also do better with projects moving forward. Especially if you’re starting out without a lot of experience, you will have projects that you look back on with disappointment. Sometimes you have the opportunity to go back and do better on the second time around, but most of the time you have to make peace with the fact that you’re a growing human being and your past efforts might not look as good as your skill develops. (The same is true of publishing.) Don’t let that keep you from learning and growing and putting your all into the projects you work on as you move forward.


Kudos and cookies to everyone who read this very long post all the way to the end. If you have another second, comment below with your biggest takeaway from the post!

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