by Cara Jordan, PhD
Bio: Cara Jordan has a PhD in art history from the Graduate Center, CUNY. She began working as a freelance editor in 2008 and established Flatpage, an editorial agency and publishing house, in 2015. She is president and chief editor of Flatpage.
As a struggling PhD student, I built a freelance academic editing business that has grown from a side gig to support my research into an active editorial agency called Flatpage, where I work alongside a team of editors who specialize in the various aspects of academic and arts writing. With little access to mentorship or professional development in my academic field or from my university, how was I able to do it?
In this post, I will discuss how scholars can identify and capitalize on skill sets developed in academia in order to start a business, as well as give you practical advice on how to begin as a freelancer, build a client roster, healthy financial and legal structures, and market yourself and your business.
The Transition from Academia into Editing
Before you even begin, you should decide whether entrepreneurialism is for you. Starting a business is hard, and success isn’t always immediate. It requires a considerable investment of time, energy, and even funds. It took me a long time to build a sustainable business and, at first, I was at the whim of the “feast or famine” of the freelance lifestyle. That said, freelancing also offers the potential for much greater freedom and economic benefits than even the academic job market can provide.
Next, you should decide if editing is really for you. I had job experience utilizing my editorial eye, in addition to editing articles and dissertations for other grad students and peer reviewing for journals while I was in grad school. Many aspiring editors whom I’ve spoken with—and even interviewed for jobs in my company—have worked as reviewers and have edited thousands of their own students’ and colleagues’ writings.
Back when I was still presenting at conferences and publishing on my own research, I would get looks of pity when I told my “colleagues” about my editing career. Things only got real for me when I gave up any hope of “doing” academia myself: I stopped applying to academic jobs, trying to publish my own art historical articles and books, and I really 100% committed to this life. In short, I shifted my mindset. And I don’t regret it.
When people ask me about becoming a freelancer or starting a business, I often tell them: “Think small, be small. Think big, be big.” If you consider your freelance business to be small, then you may never escape the limitations of the gig economy, but if you dream bigger, if you see it as something more than just a side gig, then it can become a truly sustainable business.
Planning Your Business
The first step in creating a business is deciding what kind of business you want to have. In editing, that means you need to determine what kind of editor you want to be and the audience you want to market to. Think about your innate strengths. Those who are better with big-picture feedback about argumentation and organization tend to gravitate more toward developmental editing, whereas those who have a knack for applying rules and hammering out rough sentences go toward copyediting, and those that have an eagle eye for detail go for proofreading.
Then, consider what kinds of materials you want to work on and the types of clients you want to have. Your choice might depend on your experience—perhaps you’ve worked with many students while teaching, and you either want to continue working with them or you’d rather move on to other pastures. I encourage you to find a niche that brings you joy, doesn’t rouse personal insecurities, and that you can build on in the long term.
If you’re having trouble deciding, you might consider a session with a career coach like Malini Devadas, who specializes in working with editors, who can help you identify your editorial niche.
Next, you need to engage in professional development, like a training course or a certificate program. The field of editing requires quite a few technical skills in addition to raw talent and ability, and it is necessary to learn these skills before you start taking on professional clients. When I hire editors, I’m looking for people who are invested in this career path by pursuing certificates in editing offered by universities like UCSD, the University of Washington, the University of Chicago, and Simon Fraser University. I want to know that they’ve joined professional organizations like the Editorial Freelancer’s Association or Editors Canada and that they have a community of experts to confer with.
Finding paid clients is the toughest part of starting out. Most editors work by word of mouth. So how do you start getting people to recommend you? Start with your existing networks. Let them know that you’re now taking clients and offer your services to those who might need it. Use any experience you’ve had in the past as a selling point.
If you need to, you can even volunteer to get some projects under your belt. However, before jumping into any unpaid opportunity, weigh how passionate you are about the cause and how many connections you’ll make with the amount of time it will take you to complete the project.
Building a Sustainable Business
Next, you’ll need to build a solid structure and processes so you can grow your business. In my experience, it’s best if you can do this while you have an existing income stream coming in and while you’re waiting to build up a solid client base.
Marketing is key to getting new clients outside of your existing network, and it poses new challenges for many academics. To dip your toe in, you might begin by setting up profiles on professional associations’ websites or crafting a high-quality LinkedIn profile. Either option will give you a place where potential clients can find out more about you and your experience.
Eventually, you’ll also need your own website. This stage is crucial and really sets professionals apart from gig workers. Choose a solid business name, buy a domain, and design a website using one of the many platforms out there. Your website should showcase your skills and experience in your niche and any client testimonials you have, and it should speak directly to your target audience.
Social media is also a great way to meet and introduce clients to your work. For this, you might consider what platforms your potential clients use and whether you need a new account or if you can recycle an account you already have. Also, make sure that your content speaks to your clients rather than other freelancers in your industry.
Rates & Finances
There are a lot of resources out there about establishing rates; it varies widely depending on your experience, subject-area expertise, geographic location, and other factors. Start by speaking with others in your field to get an idea and check out the EFA’s rate chart. Don’t expect to start near the top if you don’t have the experience to back it up, but also don’t do a disservice to others by trying to undercut everyone else.
As you get more and more clients, you’ll also need to know how to keep yourself organized financially, particularly when it comes to tax time. If you’re able to, I recommend that you seek out the help of a financial planner with experience working with freelancers. Learn how to invoice clients and accept payments and figure out what kind of bookkeeping system works best for you. And don’t forget to keep track of all expenses in order to write them off at tax season!
When I was starting out, there were plenty of times when there was miscommunication about expectations, deadlines, document handling, payments, and more. I only decided to write a contract when I started getting stiffed for big projects. But, really, it just makes sense to get all aspects of a project in writing so everyone is on the same page right from the start.
Contracts can be more or less formal. My own has transformed from a brief and casual letter to a longer and more complex contract as my business has grown. You’ll want to consider adding in paragraphs or sections on: the scope and schedule of the project; the rate and overall price estimate; how clients should interact with you; and payment terms and method.
Check out the book The Paper It’s Written On by editors Karin Cather and Dick Margulis, who put together some comprehensive tips and two possible templates. Whatever you include, though, be sure to have it looked over by a legal professional, especially if you have nonstandard terms.
Now that you’re ready to start, please keep in touch! At Flatpage, we are regularly seeking trained and experienced editors to grow our team. Additionally, be on the lookout for a future webinar on this topic through the Professor Is Out, where you can pick my brain about all things editorial related
- From Science Researcher to Academic Writing Coach – Guest Post
- The Job of an Academic Editor: Part 2 (Fruscione #postac post)
- The Job of an Academic Editor: Part 1 (Fruscione #Postac Post)
- Framing Your Freelance Experience on the Academic Job Market – Fruscione #postac post
- What an Editor Does (and Can Do) – Joe Fruscione