By Dr. Margy Thomas.
Margy Thomas, Ph.D., helps people distill their knowledge and skills into cohesive, articulate, distinctive stories. Since early 2013, she has run her own academic writing consultation and editing service, ScholarShape, LLC, where she works with academics around the world and across disciplines on turning their research into compelling publications. Through TPII, she applies this same skill to helping academics articulate, in written form, the work they do (and want to do) beyond the academy.
With the world shifting around us and the rent still, mysteriously, coming due every month, you may be wondering how feasible it might be to start finding work as an academic editor.
As a longtime former academic editor who still gets regular requests from scholars for referrals to other academic editors, I believe the demand for editorial support is still there, whether you’re looking to edit in a freelance-on-the-side kind of way or as a full-time, all-in endeavor.
The challenge is not finding clients, exactly; it’s discerning which type of editorial support you’re best equipped to offer and establishing a reputation for being good and reliable at that specific service.
Here are some considerations as you prepare to pursue editorial work.
First, discern which type of editorial support you’d most enjoy and be best suited to.
Most of us are familiar with late-stage editorial services like line/copy editing and proofreading: polishing what’s already there, so that the author’s intended meaning comes through clearly. Scholars seek line/copy editing late in the writing process, right before sending their manuscript off to publishers, or between initial and final submission. Proofreading happens at the very end of the process, when the text is set for publication and needs a final check for accuracy. These late-stage services can be a great place to get started since they’re well defined, readily understood, and easier to sell by the hour or word.
Another set of options, albeit a bit tricker to get into, are early-to-middle-stage editorial services like writing consultation, coaching, and/or developmental editing. With these services, your job is to help scholars actually shape their manuscripts. You hold space for the author to figure out what exactly they’re trying to say and provide the structure, clarity, and direction they need to make their way through the long and winding process of bringing a manuscript to submission.
You might be drawn to these early-to-middle-stage services if you’re skilled at holding space for others’ perspectives without imposing your own, if you can spot patterns (i.e., discern the deep structure of a manuscript before it has a solid, visible, external form), if you are adept at storytelling/narrative theory, and if you have an intuitive grasp of what makes for a compelling argument. Another strength here is if your personality leans more toward the supportive/kind/gentle than authoritarian, since the author needs to retain ownership of the project even (and especially) in its vulnerable, emergent form.
A key point to remember, if you’ve ever been a teacher, is that editing is not grading, and clients aren’t students.
The challenge of offering early- and middle-stage editorial support services is how to define the container. Without a fixed draft to read through and edit, and without a clear way to keep the fascinating-ness of your clients’ projects from seeping into your every conscious moment, it can be tricky to figure out how to charge for your work in a way that is fair to both of you. Spoiler, I have done many hours of work over the years that there was no real way to charge for. I am not sure if there’s any way around this, except just to love your work and accept this as part of the process. My main suggestion to you, if you choose to offer these types of services, is simply to keep asking yourself the “what’s my container?” question over and over again, with every client, as you evolve the container that will work best for you and the people you serve.
Finally, there’s the option of Indexing, a service I never knew existed until my clients started asking me to recommend someone to provide it. To create an index for a book is an intellectual act in itself, as you make creative choices that will shape how the book will be perceived and used. As an indexer, you are helping to make meaning of the content and influencing how readers will make meaning as well. If I had infinite lifetimes to live, I would want to try out one as a book indexer for sure.
As you gain clarity on which type of service(s) you’d like to offer, you’ll want to start gathering evidence that you can do it well. Which brings me to my second main suggestion….
Focus on establishing your credibility with the specific type of service you choose.
A simple one-page website listing your qualifications and a couple of testimonials or past projects goes a very long way.
Beyond that, my experience, and that of other editors I’ve talked to, is that an editorial practice really can be built on word of mouth. If you do excellent work for each of your clients, and continue learning, growing, and refining your offerings as you go, you can trust that clients will keep coming your way and your practice will flourish. The demand for reliable, skilled editors is high enough. And the editing market is broad enough that if demand flags in one area, there are always other areas to branch out into, even if it means leaving the academic market.
Finally, find the resources and community that will support you along the way.
Being self-employed is so different from having an employer that I can’t even fully understand how odd I am, as someone who has spent my entire career since finishing grad school in 2012 with no employer but myself. (Unless you count my clients and customers as my employers, which in a sense, I do).
I’ve always depended on friendships and camaraderie with fellow self-employed people as I navigate the unique challenges and gifts of this way of life.
If you regard yourself more as an entrepreneur than a freelancer, meaning you see yourself as building a business and not just selling your time, then I can’t say enough good things about the What Works Network, an online community of entrepreneurs/small business owners run by one of my sheroes, Tara McMullin. Inside this virtual community, we have rich, candid conversations, share resources, support each other, and imagine new ways to use commerce for good. We also have a resource library and quarterly conferences. This link to join does not get me any kind of affiliate commission; I’m just a huge fangirl of this community and would love to see more academic small business owners in there. Also, ok, I do get a gold badge on my profile if I refer enough new people.
Another resource is the Editorial Freelancers’ Association website, which offers a range of information on the industry as a whole, like this post with market rates for different types of editing. Note, though, that some of the general info may not match up with the specifics of the academic editing market; for example, my rate was $100/hour, more than double the EFA’s standard rates, by the time I stopped taking on new clients.
And finally, a few resources from me!
- Here’s an “asynchronous informational interview”: a page on my website where you can submit your questions, and I’ll email to let you know when I add an answer to your question on the page!
- My list of the TOP FIVE insights that helped me build an effective editing practice. (Same link as for the asynchronous informational interview.)
- A directory of academic editors where you can submit your info (name, website, services, rates) for free, and I will post it publicly to help you connect with new clients. I do not collect a commission or fee from you; this directory is me paying forward all the unpaid word-of-mouth referrals that my entire business has been built on over the years.
Let me also plug a recent interview with Greg Britton, Editorial Director of Johns Hopkins University Press, on what kinds of academic books the university presses are looking to publish right now. If you’re serving academics who are working on books, they are likely very concerned with this question at the moment, and with this interview in your back pocket, you’ll have some answers for them.
Before I leave, there’s one last thing I want to assure you of.
You have enormous value to offer the world. Please remember this. You have inherent worth apart from the work that you do, of course. But you also have skills the world very much needs. It’s just a matter of connecting with the people who will value your help the most.