How to Start a Freelance Fiction Editing Business

By Guest Post •  Updated: 01/17/17 •  11 min read

When you picture your perfect day, does it involve curling up—or stretching out—with a good book at some point? And I don’t just mean the latest business volume to help you get your business up and running. Settling down for a couple of hours with Evernote and your hulking great copy of Tools of Titans is all well and good, but don’t you just love to dive into a good thriller or romance or sci-fi novel sometimes?

If you answered yes, starting a fiction editing business could be the path to location independence you seek. Especially if you’re also a grammar nerd who takes a certain pride in your ability to catch and correct typos. It’s a business that can easily be run from your laptop, particularly if you work with self-publishing authors rather than traditional publishing houses.

Becoming a freelance fiction editor is not as easy or simple as starting, say, an SEO article writing business, but—for most people—it’s infinitely more rewarding. To get a better idea of whether this is the right path for you, keep reading to find out what you need to do to get started.

1. Decide Which Type of Editing to Do

Becoming a freelance fiction editor isn’t as simple as saying, “Send me your book and I’ll make it better!” No. There are different levels of editing, beginning with the big picture and moving on to the tiniest details. There are many different names for each type of editing, but the process is generally the same whatever you call each step. It looks something like this:

  1. Macro editing
    Macro editing is the big, sweeping part of the process—you look at the manuscript as a whole and address how effectively the story has been told, helping the author fashion it into something people will want to read. This is intensive and definitely the most difficult type of editing to get right. You need to know your shit to be able to do this.
  2. Sentence-level editing
    There are a couple of different types of sentence-level editing: line editing and copy-editing. It’s easy to get them mixed up because they’re pretty similar. Line editing comes first in the process, and its aim is to make paragraphs and sentences more artful in the way they flow, and more correct and consistent in the way they’re presented. Essentially, your aim is to help improve the writing. Copy-editing, on the other hand, is about correcting the writing, fixing any grammatical errors without touching any of the creative elements of the prose.
  3. Micro editing
    Otherwise known as proofreading. Technically, proofreading comes after the book has been typeset (put into book format), and is the final check to make sure no errors have slipped through the previous rounds of editing, so if you’re working on something before that stage, what you’re doing is probably copy-editing. There’s a lot of fluidity around the terms though, especially in digital publishing. So long as you’re clear about the precise service you’re offering, you’ll be fine.

Unless you have a strong knowledge of creative writing and how to tell a story effectively, it’s best not to start by offering macro editing services; copy-editing and proofreading are good places to begin your freelance editing journey.

Here’s a great starting point for finding proofreading jobs.

2. Learn How to Use Track Changes

Track Changes is the function in Microsoft Word that allows you to make changes to a work without immediately implementing them. You can change things and make suggestions and comments, all while still being able to view the work in its original form. Basically, it’s the red pen. It looks like this:

Track Changes is an essential tool for an editor. It makes it a lot easier to see what you’ve changed, and rather than directly editing a text you’re simply making suggested changes, which can either be accepted or rejected. This is also nice for the author, so they can see and learn from your edits.

Sophie Playle (my business partner) has written an excellent guide to Track Changes. It’s written for authors, but you should find it useful, too.

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3. Choose Your Niche/Specialism

If you’ve been reading Location Rebel for a while, I’m sure you’ve learned the importance of “niching down.” It’s much easier to make people want to work with you when you specialize in a specific niche. When it comes to editing, there are several ways you can specialize.

Simply labelling yourself as a fiction editor is the obvious place to start. Fiction editing and non-fiction editing are very different, and if you were an author, wouldn’t you prefer to work with someone who’s experienced in and dedicated to the craft of fiction?

However, you can take it even further. You could specialize in a specific genre—Sophie, for example, specializes in editing sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative fiction—or by type of service you offer. Take Louise Harnby, who specializes solely in proofreading. The final way to specialize is by type of client, which could be publishing houses, self-publishing authors or authors who want to publish traditionally. (It’s easier to begin by working directly with authors, because they’re more likely to choose an editor they feel a connection with, as opposed to publishing houses who look for more experienced candidates.)

You can specialize in one or all three of these areas. Theoretically, the more you niche it down, the easier it should be to find clients, although this does have its limits—choose a tiny enough niche and there may not be enough work to sustain you.

4. Set Your Rates

Ahh, rates. Every freelancer’s favourite topic. Hahaha, just kidding. Everyone hates thinking about rates! Because how the hell do you decide how much to charge? WHAT’S YOUR WORTH? Or, more accurately, what’s your work’s worth, since that really has nothing to do with your worth as a human being. But I digress.

Setting rates as a freelance fiction editor isn’t all that different from setting rates in any other type of freelancing, though there is, unsurprisingly, more of a focus on word count.

One of the most common ways to set rates as a freelance editor is per 1000 words, though other options include per page (a page is classed as 250 words in the publishing industry), per hour, or per project (which can be calculated using your per-1000-words rate).

You can either present a fixed rate (“I charge $18 per 1000 words”) or a ranged rate (“I charge between $14 and $22 per 1000 words”). The ranged rate will allow you the flexibility to adjust your rate depending on the quality of the manuscript the client sends you.

5. Create Your Website

As a fiction editor, you’re going to need an online home where authors can find out more about you and the services you offer. So you’re going to need to set up a website, which will involve purchasing your domain name and hosting, installing WordPress and adding content to your site. Check out this post I wrote for Sean about how to set up a freelance writing website—the instructions for creating a freelance editing website are very similar, with just a few obvious tweaks to the content needed.

You’ll still want to include a home, about, services and contact page, though obviously you’ll need to, well, talk about freelance editing rather than writing. It’s up to you whether you decide to include your rates or not.

6. Decide Your Client Work Process

Before you nab your first client, you should have a vague idea of how you’re going to actually do this, right? Editing a manuscript for a fiction author should go a little like this:

  1. Receive an enquiry
    Unfortunately, it’s tricky to actively hunt down clients as a freelance fiction editor (how do you know who’s writing a novel, and who’s ready for editing?), so you’ll need to wait for them to come for you. (Though there are ways to speed up this process—more on that below.)
  2. Ask for a sample
    This is a crucial stage of the process, and something you’ll want to do before you send a quote—perhaps before you even decide whether you want to take the client on. I highly recommend conducting a sample edit of the author’s work (preferably taken from the middle of the book, rather than the polished beginning). This will allow you to judge how much to charge for the edit, based on the quality of the work, and will let the author see the standard of work you’ll provide. Whether you charge for the sample edit or not is up to you.
  3. Schedule the project
    Once you’ve agreed to work with a client, you’ll want to clearly lay out the timeline for it: when the client needs to send the finished manuscript to you by, as well as when you will start work on it and when you’ll deliver the fully edited manuscript.
  4. Sign a contract
    Whether you sign an official contract is up to you, too. You should do what makes you feel most comfortable, but I strongly advise that you at least have some terms and conditions in place or keep a record of email agreements (in the UK this is considered proof of a verbal contract). As long as you have evidence of what you’ve agreed, you should be fine. However, I’m not a legal expert, so be sure to check the law in your own country.
  5. Get a deposit
    Many new freelancers feel uncomfortable about asking for money upfront, but it’s a completely normal part of the process. Securing the deposit gives you peace of mind and allows you to comfortably schedule projects in advance—and it’ll show your client that you’re serious. Around 25–50% is a good amount to get upfront. For more information, check out this article I wrote about how to write an invoice.
  6. Do the work!
    That covers what you need to do before you begin working on a project, so now’s the time to complete the project as agreed. Make sure you deliver the edited manuscript by the deadline, of course. I recommend sending over a “clean” version of the manuscript (with all the edits implemented), as well as a document that shows all your tracked changes and comments, and one that has the edits implemented but still shows your comments on the work.
  7. Invoice for the remainder
    Once you’ve sent the final edited manuscript over, issue your final invoice, requesting the remainder of the fee. It’s a good idea to be clear about the level of post-project communication the author can expect, too. You don’t want somebody querying you five months down the line about a specific change you made, so make it plain when they need to get their final questions to you by.

7. Put Yourself Where Clients Can Find You

As mentioned above, it’s annoyingly hard to hunt down clients cold-email style as you would with many other types of freelancing. Because just not that many people are authors who want to have their books edited, you know? And even if they were, how would you find them? It’s not like you can just Google that shit. Not like if you were, say, trying to find businesses to offer SEO consulting services to. Instead, you have to put yourself where people who are ready to have their manuscripts edited can find you. There are a few options here:

Karen Marston runs Untamed Writing, where she’ll help you grab life by the balls, escape your mundane existence and finally start that freelance writing career you’ve always dreamed of.

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5 comments on "How to Start a Freelance Fiction Editing Business"

  1. Karen Marston says:

    Thanks for having me, Sean! Much appreciated 🙂

    1. Sean says:

      Absolutely! Hope prep for the new course is going well 🙂

  2. Cally Worden says:

    I would highly recommend the Start Fiction Editing course to anyone thinking of making the leap! I was there last summer, and I’m so glad I did (and no, Karen’s not paying me to say this!). The course is seriously good, and covers everything you need to get started on your new career. Honestly, it’s the best investment I’ve made in a long time. And yes, I now work as a freelance fiction editor (and make money at it too!). Go for it!

    1. Karen Marston says:

      Aww, thanks Cally. Glad the course worked so well for you! 🙂

  3. It is a very good course that will help lot of people.

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