I remember seeing an ad on Facebook when I was in college. It depicted a young attractive woman sitting on a couch in her pajamas with a laptop and sipping from a cup of coffee. She was a freelance professional. She worked from home and made her own schedule every day, coordinating clients, deadlines, personal goals, etc. It was my dream. I couldn’t even imagine how happy I would be if I could make a living entirely from home without ever having to talk to people in person. I thought, that would be great, but how in the world do you get started?
Well, I graduated with a degree in English in 2009, but it would be almost a decade before I really got my start in freelance book editing. In addition, there are several pros and cons to this lifestyle that I’d love to share with you.
After graduation, I was married within a couple of months, having met my husband during one of my final classes in college. We decided to move to South Carolina where I soon found an interesting editorial internship with a lifestyle magazine in Mount Pleasant. The gig was pretty stereotypical in the sense that there were some days when I made coffee, ran errands for the editors, and manned the front desk like a receptionist (yes, it was a nightmare). But, I thought, I was also getting “valuable experience” to “put on my résumé.” In my mind, internships generally ended with a job offer, right? I was pretty naïve, and I’m pretty sure that neither myself nor any other intern that fall was offered the job after nine weeks.
After that, I was employed at a series of retail stores—followed by a series of coffee shops once I realized I hated trying to push credit cards on people every day. The coffee shop transition was strange, and I wrote extensively on the experience in my recently released memoir, Chameleon: An Asperger’s Memoir, but it was a step up from the pressure to be enthusiastic about selling people things I didn’t care about. At least at Starbucks, all I was required to do was smile and be friendly while making coffee. At some point I realized I felt empty and unfulfilled, so I found the gig at the school for autism. After that experience, I moved on to a very simple, introvert-friendly job of cleaning people’s homes, mostly while they weren’t there. This was during the time when I was in therapy and trying anxiety medications and trying to find a psychologist to speak to about Asperger’s. It was a difficult time, and I did some strange things that were foreign to me and with which I only came to terms months and years later. Things like spontaneously cutting my hair—myself…with scissors…so short I was almost bald in some areas. I thought it was just me being creative and spontaneous, which is something I do a lot, but I now understand that there was a lot going on that I was trying to work through both consciously and subconsciously.
Then, it dawned on me that I was ready to pursue something in line with my degree. I had been searching for something to get my foot in the door of an editing career for years, job-searching on site after site. But there was absolutely nothing there most of the time. It seemed I could never get into editing unless I moved to Chicago or New York or somewhere there were large publishing houses. And that’s what professional editing was to me at the time; the idea of freelancing did not enter my mind until a few months after finally landing a decent proofreading gig in town.
I remember finding the ad on Craigslist and getting so excited. Finally! I can sit in an office and proofread and not worry about sales or cleaning or interacting with customers. It seemed like a dream come true, and it wasn’t bad at first. The returning problems with social anxiety and a general feeling of cluelessness when it came to other people in the office became overwhelming after those first initial weeks when the shy, “new girl” behavior was acceptable. After a while, I decided everyone in the office was pretty much annoying the hell out of me, and I was also not in love with the subject matter of the stuff I was proofreading. I told myself that this was something to get me started, but I knew I would want to move on to something else if I could, as soon as I was comfortable doing so. That’s when the freelance world found me, and I created a profile on Upwork.
At this point, I had a pretty strong background of editing and internships under my belt, having participated in two online editorial internships for a publishing house and then a literary agency shortly after. It had been a few years, but it still looked good on my profile next to the English degree with an emphasis on creative writing. Suddenly, I realized that if this worked out, I could finally be the girl on the couch editing novels in her PJs! What a dream come true.
I knew I couldn’t just quit the part-time proofreading gig until I felt like I could make decent money doing freelance work, and it took about six months or so to really get a foothold with a good-looking résumé, work history, and client reviews. I still remember my very first gig. I was paid $5 to edit a short blog post that was maybe a page and a half long. The client gave me my first review: 5 stars.
I continued to bid on as many editing gigs as I could to build up that profile and get reviews. I quickly learned that clients primarily seemed to make their choices of freelancers based on reviews. For example, the fact that I had an English degree and had participated in an editorial internship did not hold nearly as much weight as a long list of 5-star reviews in which clients shared their individual experiences working with me. I had a conversation with one client who did not even scroll as far as the work experience portion; he simply chose me based on the comments of prior clients.
After about a year and a half I had a talk with my husband, and he decided to let me try this freelance editing thing full-time. I explained that I needed to be able to concentrate on this full-time, and so I needed to quit the proofreading gig, which I was gradually starting to hate and feel very anxious about on a daily basis. We agreed that I would give it a try for a couple of months and if I wasn’t making enough money, I would look for something else. I was excited and nervous at the same time, but most of all I felt confident that if I was just able to find the clients to give me a chance, I could prove that I was pretty good at what I did. And not only that, but I could manage my own schedule and never miss a deadline, oftentimes turning around a manuscript a day or two early.
Today (as of this writing), I have a very long list of glowing 5-star reviews from clients with “top rated” status and a 100% approval rating. I absolutely love what I do, but there are several things to think about before making the decision to commit to a freelance career. The following is a list of pros and cons followed by a few bits of advice for anyone who might be dreaming of the full-time freelance lifestyle.
(Note: This information comes solely from my experience with the freelance site Upwork.)
- No commuting
When you’re a freelancer, you can make anywhere your office for the day, for the week, or permanently. If you decide you might like a change of scenery, you can take your laptop and go work at the coffee shop or the library, etc. It’s a good idea to set up a private, comfortable space to work in at home. Don’t underestimate the importance of this space. Give yourself as much space as possible and do whatever you can to make it feel professional and organized. I have the luxury of a big basement where I have some space for a big desk. I have a few candles sitting out and some framed art on the walls to make it feel cozy and attractive. You’re going to spend a lot of time here, so make it as enjoyable to occupy as possible.
- Work on your own schedule
Of course, you’ll be working with each client on the deadlines for each project, but how you complete your contracts and when you work is completely up to you. This is both a pro and con, really, as we’ll discuss in the con section, especially for those of us who struggle with a lack of structure or hard schedule of ordered tasks to follow. I am a morning person when it comes to getting work done, so I typically get all of my day’s work done by the morning to early afternoon hours. Once I stop working and start doing something else, it is pretty much impossible for me to return to work. I just can’t seem to transition back, say, later in the evening to get a few more pages in. I keep this in mind when I’m parsing out how many pages I need to edit each morning to complete a project on time. The freedom is wonderful because I can just get up and take a break, do some chores around the house, have a snack, or go to the park for a jog whenever I feel like it. I like to use a trip to the park as a kind of transition between work time and relaxing time once I get back home.
- The sense of pride and confidence that comes from building your own business Each time I get paid for a contract, I feel really good about being able to make money my way and without other people’s interference. I am my own boss, and it is up to me to please a client and complete a job well. When this happens, I have myself to thank, and it feels really good, especially when those glowing reviews go up. It keeps me motivated to keep doing my absolute best with each new contract. Now, this also comes with a bit of pressure because just a couple of bad reviews can hurt your chances of landing new contracts, since this can hurt your overall score (referring specifically to Upwork). Reviews are so, so important, and part of the work experience is being able to communicate effectively and efficiently using the messaging system. Your overall rating includes things like how quickly you respond to invitations to interview from new clients.
- Constant variety
I love that I will be working on a steamy romance one day then maybe a doctoral thesis the next. Each project is completely unique, so it feels like a fresh start and a fresh opportunity to show what I’ve got. Part of the reason I couldn’t hang in the office was because I very quickly grew tired and bored and impatient with the people I worked with. It wasn’t personal, really; I was simply tired of the monotony. Some people like the comfort of a constant routine with the same faces, which I get. But I start to feel the social pressure after a few weeks when it’s expected that I evolve from that initial “new” stage and begin forming some kind of working relationship with other people in the office. I absolutely have no affinity for doing this most of the time.
- Very little face time with clients Every once in a blue moon I will get a request from a client to have a short Skype interview, and I understand why a client would want this. Most of the time, they aren’t looking to grill you or make you feel uncomfortable, or even to test you. They simply want to be reassured that you are who you say you are and to put a face with the person they are talking to. That said, I think in the years I’ve been freelancing, I’ve had a grand total of three Skype sessions with clients who requested it. I have to admit, I’ve occasionally declined a potential client because of the initial request to talk via Skype, but only when I feel I can find something else quickly with a less burdensome interview process. As you other Aspies might guess, this can be an incredibly difficult thing to get up the nerve to do, with lots of anxiety and self-doubt in the hours or even days before the interview. Sometimes, I just don’t have the energy to deal with it, and that’s okay.
- Working in “flow” state without being disturbed
One of the things I hated most about working in an office proofreading was that it seemed I couldn’t sit and edit for more than 30 minutes without a supervisor or coworker interrupting me with a new task or a question or whatever else. It was maddening. What I love about freelancing is that I have total control over my environment, and I love getting into the zone in a proofreading or editing contract and going through hundreds of pages, sometimes in a single sitting, without interruption.
- Lack of structure with sole responsibility for your work
As mentioned earlier, the freedom of working on your own schedule means that you must discipline yourself to get tasks done without someone looking over your shoulder or following you around telling you what to do. This might be incredibly difficult for some individuals with autism, so it’s something to keep in mind before deciding to try freelancing. I would suggest recruiting a friend, family member, or other support to help you construct a system for completing work that is flexible enough to apply to each individual contract. Part of this would be figuring out what time of day is most suitable to your needs for getting the work done. Personally, I have to work in the morning, first thing, without distraction or interruption. Others may find it easier to get started a few hours after waking up and following a morning routine. The planning should be done as soon as the contract is started. Decide how much you are going to do for how many days according to when the client needs the work completed and returned. Learning how much work you are comfortable handling is a learning process that will happen over time. If you take on too much, you’re going to know it, and you’ll know that you can’t take on that much in the future. But remember that you will also get better and faster at your freelance work, whatever field you choose to pursue, the more you practice and complete projects.
- Anxiety when work isn’t coming in There are always going to be periods of time when you just aren’t getting new contracts. Sometimes the projects just aren’t there, and sometimes you’ll have too much competition and will have trouble with clients choosing others over you, for whatever reason. Your income will fluctuate, and you have to be ready for those times when you start to feel anxious about not getting new work. There are several ways to try and safeguard against those times when there just isn’t a lot of work available. I hit this crossroads a couple of months ago and decided to branch out and try ghostwriting. I am now employed with an agency from whom I can get ghostwriting work pretty much whenever I need it, and I use this avenue for income in conjunction with editing work. When the editing is slow, I simply pick up a book contract and start writing. There are lots of ghostwriting agencies and opportunities out there, so don’t be afraid to go exploring. Just be sure to research the individual companies to make sure they’re legit.
- Insecurity and getting to that place where you feel confident with steady work
This can take some time. For me, it was a good six months before I was ready to try committing full-time, and then it took an additional year to feel like I could rely solely on this for income and not have to worry constantly about needing to find a “real” job. This can be tricky without support from others with whom you might be sharing bills. It takes a lot of patience and perseverance sometimes to keep going and not give up. It’s all about doing quality work and getting those positive reviews, at least in my experience.
Tips and Advice:
My first piece of advice is that if you feel strongly that freelance work is right for you, do whatever you can to get past the anxiety and fear and take that first step and create a profile. Ask for help wherever you can get it if you need support. Perhaps someone at a local college or library could help you set up your profile and complete things like work history and bio. It will be a lot like setting up and creating a résumé, so someone who you think knows their stuff when it comes to constructing a good résumé will definitely be able to help you set up your digital résumé for Upwork or another freelance site. Each piece of experience or work history as well as your descriptions for any portfolio pieces should be descriptive and concise. Just enough to give the client a good idea of what you’re capable of without losing them in the details. Keep in mind that people’s attention spans can be quite short, especially when they see long blocks of text! Ahem…
Practice writing your cover letters. Now, this is not nearly as difficult as it sounds. My cover letters are literally three to four sentences at most. Here is an example:
I am an experienced and top-rated editor here on Upwork, and I would love to be considered for this project. Please refer to my profile for a detailed work history, client feedback, and portfolio. I have experience editing in this genre and love taking on large projects.
Thank you for your consideration!
Your First Name
A lot of the time, this is all you really need, but if the project is complex or there are specific questions in the client’s ad, be sure to answer these thoroughly and personalize the letter so it doesn’t sound generic and like you send the exact same thing to every single client. Add some humor and personality if you feel comfortable. Try not to make the experience so dry and overly “professional” and daunting, while at the same time maintaining top-quality professionalism when it comes to the actual work. Make sense? A lot of the clients I work with are first-time authors and are new to the process. They might feel intimidated at the prospect of speaking to and hiring a freelancer, so using lots of jargon or overly dry and wordy letters might put them off even more. Remember that your clients are just people, like everyone else you know. You’re allowed to be fun and quirky. Be yourself, not what you think a “professional freelancer” should look/sound/seem like. Clients appreciate honesty and authenticity.
One thing I did when I first got started was bid super low on projects just to try and get those contracts and reviews under my belt. The realm of freelance is so competitive, I felt like this was the only way to get the ball rolling. Turns out, a lot of people do this. I was told many times in later months that I shouldn’t have underbid, but this is easier said than done. The trick is to be sure that once you feel established and have an idea of what your time is worth, you aren’t afraid to increase your hourly rate or fixed fee prices so that you feel like you’re being fairly compensated for the work you’re putting in. Some people are looking for the cheapest freelancers available, while other clients just simply don’t have the budget for a top-level editor. I try to keep all these things in mind when I’m deciding on a bid for a project.
Tips Specific to Freelance Editors:
Always ask to take a look at a manuscript from a new client before deciding on a price for proofreading or any other level of editing, at least in the beginning when you are developing skills and speed. I’ve had some nightmare experiences where I bid purely based on word count then ended up with a manuscript that was in such bad shape it took me twice as long as I thought to complete the edit. Looking at the manuscript first will give you a better idea of how long the project will probably take you to edit.
DO NOT agree to work for free. Sample edits are common, and I will generally agree to no more than a couple of pages if the client insists. This doesn’t happen often, but it doesn’t take too much time, and if the client feels he/she needs this to be confident in picking a freelancer, then I will do it. However, anything above a page or two is simply, in my opinion, asking for free work, and I advise against it. It’s better to agree to do a sample edit of four to five pages at your posted hourly rate if a client really wants to see your work before hiring you for a full project. This makes sense in a lot of cases where the manuscript is really large or involves technical or complex text.
Charge hourly for book formatting! Formatting can take a lot of time because of the back and forth and adjustments and changes, etc. Be sure to charge hourly so that you are being compensated for your time. Clients may differ greatly on what they want in terms of formatting, style, publishing requirements, etc. This isn’t such a big deal for eBook formatting, but paperback formatting can take some time, especially when you are first learning.
Alright, I think I’ve sufficiently emptied my brain today. If you have any questions, please post in the comment section or contact me by email for a longer conversation if you prefer. I hope this helps some of you. Thanks for reading, as always!