Tuesday 3 April 2018

So, You Want to be an Editor?

At the beginning of this year, I vowed to do less stuff I don't enjoy and only take jobs I'm interested in. This was to help me free up time to pursue my new-found hobby of building pianos. I used to spend a lot of time pursuing contracts in international development, and sometimes getting them, but I fell out with the NGO world. I think it was inevitable for a writer. I like communication. I like inventing concepts and trying to get those concepts into other people's heads as directly and relatably as possible.

Conversely, I kinda feel the world of development goes out of its way to invent language that keeps people from clearly understanding it: key performance indicators this, sustainability cycles that, SWOT, PEST and gap analyses the other. All these buzzwords to make quite straightforward questions (is the project working? Does it need more money? Have you got everything you need?) that little bit harder to grasp for grassroots, second-language English speakers.

Following that line of thought, I set up shop ghostwriting and editing. I've always enjoyed words, though not always grammar. I was a late developer, but, as with many converts, now practise it with more zeal than those who have always been good at it.

Editing wasn't something I ever thought I could make a living out of, though. Coming from the UK, there's a lot of things like editing (and piano building) where the market seems sewn up. Everyone's a writer, everyone's an editor - no one needs you.

Then, a couple of years back, I landed a gig editing national curriculum textbooks in Kigali. The deadlines were tight, the pay wasn't great, but it was fun being part of a team and it was more money than I was making doing (ironically) fundraising training. I was actually being paid to edit full-time.

Jobs followed after that. I started editing for a couple of burgeoning publishing houses, an international development agency, a major global charity and an online e-learning platform. Mostly it's small pieces, billed monthly, but it starts to add up.

It's now my main source of income, so I thought I'd explain a bit about it. There are several different types of editor, but I mainly copy edit. That means I'm caught up on grammar, how things flow and whether the facts check out. I edit children's stories, YA (for schools and the general market), adult fiction and non-fiction (textbooks, reports, essays and memoirs).

What do you need to be an editor?

Academically, it depends where you are and who you're editing for. I have a friend who trained as a professional editor in the US, and others who came up teaching English for the British Council. I hold an MA in Language & Communication Research, but my thesis was on forensic linguistics, not English grammar. Editing, like fundraising and social media management, is one of those careers where your track record (who you've worked for, on what, and how successfully) speaks louder than paper qualifications. You're either good at it, or this happens.

Editors come from all walks of life, but I think they share a few traits in common:

  • A fanatical obsession with the English language
  • An eagle eye for detail
  • A willingness to be pedantic at the risk of pissing people off
  • An awareness of the trickery of language (especially invisible typos), and a willingness to do battle with it
  • Happy to sit on their arse for hours on end making a frowny face at the screen
  • Curiosity about a wide range of subjects

Editing really isn't for everyone. You might love the English language, but find hours behind a desk tiresome. You might love the trickery of language, but be incapable of training your eyes to see through it. You might be excellent at picking up every misplaced comma or apostrophe, but feel bad about marking it up because you don't want to run the risk of upsetting anyone.

You really do need a mixture of desk endurance, proficiency and self-confidence to do this professionally. Google is absolutely your best friend. There's no faster way to find the correct spelling of something than to type it wrongly into Google. Especially useful when undertaking technical or academic work, where (and I kid you not) you might come across 'washing dishes' referred to as a 'reproductive task' - and that's all right. Just wash your hands afterwards.

How do you charge?

This was the number one question on my mind, and therefore I suspect it's on yours.

Each editor has their own way of doing things, but I'll explain what works for me:

  • Ask for the entire piece in .doc format
  • Change the whole thing to Times New Roman (TNR) 12pt, double spaced
  • Count the pages
  • Check the level of English (how much work it's likely to take)
  • Charge per page on a sliding scale of work needed

I have a lot of friends who do it by word count, but I don't like that. I mean - how much do you charge per word? Are we talking in pence, fractions of a pence? The maths gets awkward.

Changing to TNR 12pt double spaced, or a similar font, overcomes the issue of volume. You can't charge per page without giving the font specification, otherwise you're charging the same for a page of 10pt as you are for a page of 14pt. A difference of around 140 words.

How much you charge per page then depends on how bad the English is. A page of really good English might take ten minutes to proofread. A page of horrendous mistakes might take thirty minutes or more to edit. Once you've finished editing, your clean copy (discussed below) needs checking through to make sure you haven't missed anything, which also takes time. You can either include this cost in your page pricing, or as a separate fee added onto the quote, though you might have to explain to the client what this means.

You need to work out how many hours you have in a day, and how much you need to make per hour to pay rent and eat food. Then be firm about your page rate. People might walk away saying 'It's too expensive,' but editors rarely have one job on. Time you devote to underpaid work is time you're not devoting to fairly paid work, and the number of hours in a day doesn't change. 

One of my clients currently pays $8 per page as standard for their company. $80 for ten pages, usually high-quality English, an easy day's work. For smaller clients, I tend to charge around £3-4 per page, depending how bad. I also tend to round down for long-term clients and bulk manuscripts (over fifty pages or so). It's nice to have a few different things on the go as it varies your day.

When deciding what to charge, it's important not just to read the first page. Jump to a few random pages and check the standard is consistent. Sometimes the first few pages have already been edited by someone, and halfway through the English takes a nosedive. Be sure you know what you're getting yourself into. 

How do you edit?

One of my top tips for copy editing is not to read the manuscript before you start. Clients sometimes ask me, 'What did you think of the characters?' I can't tell them. I wasn't lying before when I said that language plays tricks. As this proves, your brain doesn't read every single letter in a word, it guesses by shape and length of word. The more familiar you are with a piece of work, the faster your brain fills in the gaps and the more errors you miss. That's why it's practically impossible to edit your own work effectively and another reason why you do need different types of editors. 

An editor working on character and plot development needs to read the whole story before setting to work. That's likely to make them a bad choice for copy editing the book. After I'm finished copy editing, I usually suggest a client gets the final draft proofed by someone else.

My process for editing goes as follows:

  • All jobs are submitted as a .doc so that I can track markups using Word's Review Function. I save this under EDIT [name of original file]. Example: EDIT project end term report.
  • Once all the edits are made, I clean up the markups by removing all formatting markups to leave just my comments and text deletions/insertions (the red bits). To do this, go to Review, Show Markup drop-down menu, deselect Comments and Insertions/Deletions, then Accept all changes shown. Go back and reselect Comments and Insertions/Deletions. This makes sure the important margin notes don't get lost amidst lines of font changes and italics.
  • After that, save it as a second file: CLEAN COPY [name of original file] (CLEAN COPY project end term report), accept all of the changes and delete all of the comments.
  • Finally, go through the clean copy using Word's Speak Function. This reads the document aloud to you in short chunks. It helps you catch any typos you might not have caught with your eyes - tiny things like my/by or starred/stared. Be sure to make any changes to the clean copy on the edited copy, too.

The edit shows the client all of the changes and suggestions you've made, in case they don't agree and want to change something. Some clients also like to read the notes to improve their own English. The clean copy is ready for use or submission.

If you're working on a novel or a lengthy piece for professional publication, it's also good to suggest a hard copy edit. This is where a single copy of the work is sent by the printer before commencing the print run. No matter how thorough you've been in Word, you'll always catch something in a hard copy edit, but not all publishers have the time or money. Even printing it out with a home printer can help.

Which jobs do you take?

I'm being very selective at the moment, because the whole point of editing was to escape work I wasn't enjoying. For that reason, I don't say yes to everything I'm offered. My criteria is usually:

1. Is it easy?
2. If it isn't easy, is it something I'm interested in?
3. If it isn't easy and it isn't enjoyable, does it pay well?

What people find easy varies wildly. I find academic writing easy. I have an academic background and the language doesn't intimidate me. For other people, that might be a nightmare. I don't enjoy technical construction manuals. I've no earthly concept of how part A slots into part B, and zero desire to learn. Usually, though: the shorter it is, the easier it is.

If it's long, it's got to be something I actually find interesting. Either something educational or fiction that is engaging. Fifty pages of something you're not enjoying might as well be four hundred.

Which comes down to another important decision-making factor: is it financially worth it.

As I mentioned above, there are only so many hours in the day. Resist the temptation to lower your prices. The work will take the same amount of time, you'll just get paid less for it. Don't do that. And especially don't do it because you think 'Oh, but this client might bring me more work.' Better to accept a well paid one-off job than a repeat customer who underpays.

Once you've got a couple of clients on your CV, that's enough. As one client replied (after initially questioning my fee): 'Super. You're worth the money.' And we are, good editors. Stick to your guns, and make sure that you have more than one project lined up.

So, to sum up your decision making:

  • Is it easy?
  • Is it interesting?
  • Is the deadline fair?
  • Does it pay enough?

Where do you find work?

I have a massive advantage at the moment. I live in a country where English is a second language. There's a boom in local business, a lot of INGOs, and most of them are starting to wake up to the fact that good English is important.

I've picked up clients both for editing and consultancy through cold calling. Just dropping a line saying 'hello, I do this if you ever need me'. That works better in countries where skills are in short supply than it does in countries that are oversupplied.

So, moving to an SLE country is a good start. Failing that, target SLE publishers, organisations, companies and educational institutes. It takes a few minutes to do a sample edit of some dodgy web content or a poorly-written report and e-mail it to them saying 'look what I can do'. 

Some won't take you on unless you have a bank account in their country, because the cost of international transfers is oppressively high and some countries don't have PayPal. Others want you to do hard copy edits, which you also need to be in-country for because posting things can take ages. If you are contemplating approaching SLE clients, TEFL experience helps, or experience of working in SLE environments. There's a lot of peculiarities that can go with different forms of English across the globe, and jumping straight in can be daunting.

A lot of work comes through friends of friends and word of mouth. Since the textbook gig, I have a couple of editing friends and we stay in touch and pass work between ourselves. If I don't have time to edit something, I'll pass it on, and they'll do the same for me. Once you've done a few successful jobs, more start to follow.

For me, local expat and community forums are useful. I've seen a couple of people posting for ghostwriters and English editors. I've either replied personally or been recommended by friends. Again, most people are looking to find someone local as, unlike the west, meeting face-to-face is still important in a lot of countries. People here often want to sit down and tell me their ideas before hiring me, whereas in the west, where outsourcing has become an online art form, people don't really care what your name is so long as you get the job done on time.

I steer clear of online outsourcing sites like Upwork, mostly because USD doesn't translate well into GBP for me, and I find the commission they charge a bit steep. It's financially better to deal directly with clients. Plus, having a company name or an NGO on your CV looks more convincing than Joe Bloggs from OnlineOutsourcing. The amount of hours spent chasing contracts on those sites is time you could be editing something better paid.

Can you make a living out of editing?

At the moment, I'm not entirely sure. If I took every job I was currently offered, yes. Because I'm being picky, no. But combined with the ghostwriting I also do, yes. 

I have three clients I currently bill monthly. They send me short pieces of work throughout the month, or fill a Dropbox folder, and I work my way through it and add up the total at the end. I have a friend who edits on retainer for a couple of large companies, and that provides a regular, guaranteed monthly income that covers his bills. A retainer simply means you get paid a lump sum by a company to edit whatever they send you. If you're going down the retainer route, make sure to put a maximum amount of pages per month, or 'within reasonable limits' into your contract, otherwise you could find yourself inundated. He says it does fluctuate. Some months he gets a lot to do, other months very little. If you're billing page by page, you have the option to say no to work, but you might lose the client.

As with any freelancing job, you're at the mercy of the market. Some days no one wants anything editing, some days they want 100 pages by yesterday. I was making good money when I was editing textbooks, but that was short-term work so the money had to last. The more clients you have, the greater the chances you'll make enough money each month, but also the greater the risk you'll get too much to do. It's a balancing act and you need to find your rhythm.

As editing isn't the only thing I want to do with my time, I'm happy not making a full-time living out of it. If I did want to turn it into a full-time profession, I think the work is out there, but it would probably mean taking more of the stuff I don't enjoy. 

At the moment, I'm finding the mixture of editing and ghostwriting pleasantly varied. It's satisfying intellectually and I feel like I'm contributing to interesting projects. However, as a writer, it leaves  little time to pursue my own work. 

This is my take on things at the moment. I hope it's been useful if you're thinking about becoming an editor.

If you have any questions I haven't answered, please drop a line in the comments.

It would also be great to hear from you if you're an editor with a different approach.


  1. Long time no comment! But your blog posts are still great as always! Great post on different editing types and feasibility of freelancing. Makes me kind of want to pick up stakes and experience Kigali. My three jobs don't leave much time for me to write here in Portland, either...

  2. Glad it's helpful. Certainly an advantage of English being a global language. More countries than ever starting to use English for business and online media, very few native English editors by comparison. A growth opportunity, but yes, editing other epople's work really doesn't leave much time for your own. I think that's the constant issue for writers, isn't it: how do I earn a living and find time to write? You're welcome in Kigali any time :)

  3. (errr, could someone please edit my comment...?)

  4. I'm giving a workshop on Money & Writing in a few weeks and can present 3 experiences: writing FT, writing with a professional day job, and writing with minimum-wage PT jobs...have not yet tried freelance writing or editing with writing because I fear the similar work would put my own projects even more on the back burner than now! Writer, Know Thyself... ;)