Becoming a freelance editor – what you need to know

by Gill Fernley

Becoming a freelance editor – what you need to know

Becoming a freelance editor can be a great career choice. You have the freedom to choose what type of editing you want to do, where you work and what projects you work on.

But being an editor does require a certain level of knowledge. You can’t just set yourself up as an editor without an in-depth knowledge of spelling, grammar and punctuation, and if you want to be a developmental or substantive editor for novelists, you’ll need to understand story arcs, character development and a whole lot more before you can promote yourself as a professional.

If you’re thinking of a career as an editor, read on to find out what you need to know and how to become a freelance editor.

First of all, what is an editor?

Really simply, an editor makes sure that any copy that goes to print, whether online or offline, is factually accurate, formatted to any house guidelines, free of plagiarism, and accurate in terms of grammar, spelling and punctuation.

“An editor makes sure the writer’s work says what the writer intends and says it in the writer’s voice and with his sensibilities.” – From The Editor’s Blog.

Some editors may also be responsible for choosing articles for magazines, books for publication, and even helping with design layout.

An editor’s job can vary widely depending on what type of editing they do.

What is an editor’s typical day like?

Just as with freelance writing, when it comes to editing freelance, there’s not really any such thing as a typical day.

You might be doing client work for the majority of your day, but you’ll also need to spend time on marketing yourself as a freelancer, acquiring new clients, and the general admin, filing and accounts work that goes along with running your own business. Taking some time to look at how your business is doing, and planning for the future and where you would like to be is also vital.

Freelance editors work closely with clients to produce a polished, finished piece, whether that’s with fiction authors, non-fiction authors, website content managers, magazine editorial teams, in-house publishing houses… There are many people and types of business that might need a good editor. And that’s good news for you as there are a lot of opportunities in this field, and with the internet growing as it is, and more websites popping up every day, demand for good editing skills is only going to increase.

If you pursue this type of career, you’ll find that it can be a high-pressure job with long hours, especially when coming up to a deadline.

Types of editing jobs

There are more types of editing jobs than we have room for here, and as a freelancer, you may well find yourself offering several different types to your clients:


Sometimes known as proofing, or final edits, proofreading is the last edit before the copy goes to publication. A proofreader will look for any remaining errors in tense, grammar, spelling or punctuation, and depending on the type of job, may also check for accurate page numbering, indexing, that the table of contents works and links to where it should, consistency across headers and design elements, and more to produce a final, polished product to be proud of.

Copy editing

A copy edit is not the place for huge structural changes or alterations to the story arc if you’re editing fiction. This is where you’ll check for grammar, punctuation and spelling errors, and ensure that all the styles are consistent, for example, the same speech marks are used throughout. You’ll check references, and perhaps look at where any artwork is placed.

Fact and reference checking

Pretty much what it says on the tin – ensuring all of the facts and statistics presented are accurate, and checking any references used for accuracy and validity.

Indexing specialist

You may go through a manuscript and produce an alphabetical index from the copy, or you may additionally use indexing software to actually create the final, formatted index that goes into the finished item.

Stylistic or line editing

Every writer has their own distinctive voice, and if you’re editing fiction, every single book, even from the same writer, will have its own feel and tone. Your job is not to edit that out of the manuscript, but to bring the individual voice and tone out even more and enhance the manuscript. You’ll remove clichés, smooth the writing, clarify what the writer means, work on polishing dialogue and description, and perhaps check that the reading level is right for the audience.

Developmental editing

This type of editing involves taking a project from start to finish and working with a team of people from the writer to the designers, and possibly with some involvement from marketers, too.

You might update and polish an already existing book or marketing brochure, assist the team to pull together their old blog posts into a book, or help the team work out how to get started with their project and what direction to take it in.

With fiction, you’ll quite likely work with the author to help them develop the story arc and the goals for the story. You might give notes on character development, themes, plot devices and dialogue. This is a very deep edit, and you do need to know what you’re doing to attempt this.

Substantive and structural editing

An author may need help with their story structure and style, and when doing this type of edit, you’ll use your copy-editing skills, but also look at the flow and the organisation of the plot and the style to make sure the manuscript gives a clear, coherent, compelling and well-styled story.

Again, this is a deep edit and not something you should attempt if you aren’t familiar with plot devices, story arcs and structure and the other rules of writing good fiction.

Further editing jobs might include acquisitions editor for a publisher, where you evaluate manuscripts and help to choose what books go through for publication. You might assist with magazine editing as an assistant or managing editor, or oversee a team as an executive editor. Some of those jobs may not be available to freelancers, depending on the company’s preference, but you may still find freelance opportunities if you look.

Becoming a freelance editor – what you need to know

For most editing jobs, you will need a degree in English or journalism. Membership of a professional body, such as The Society for Editors and Proofreaders, can reassure potential clients and also offer you editing training to expand your skills. If you’re interested in how to become a freelance editor, these are the key things you need to know:

Key traits and skills

Freelance editors have to have the motivation and confidence to find their own work and be their own advocate, but they also have to have excellent mastery of the English language and acute attention to detail.

The types of jobs they work on might change and sometimes they’ll have to manage several projects to tight deadlines. If this sounds like you, here’s a rundown of the key skills freelance editors have:

  • Strong grammar, punctuation and spelling
  • Adaptability
  • Flexibility 
  • IT literacy
  • Reliability
  • Accuracy
  • Ability to work under pressure
  • Thorough and detail-oriented
  • Ability to stick to deadlines
  • Communication (you’ll need to work closely with others)
  • Creativity

How to get started

If you know what you want to do early enough, you can get experience by working on the school or student newspaper or perhaps do some work for a charity to get some experience.

You could start at entry level as an editor’s assistant and work your way up, and then branch out on your own as a freelancer once you have enough editing experience.

With such an array of different editorial jobs out there, you’ll need to pick what appeals to you. A fashion editor for a magazine, for example, will need different experience and knowledge than a book editor for science fiction.

While this earlier post from our blog is about becoming a freelance writer, a lot of the advice will apply to you as an editor, so it’s well worth a read. You’ll need a website, samples of your work to show to prospective clients, and testimonials from satisfied clients.

Where to find editing jobs

You could start with the freelance job sites, such as Upwork, and browse boards such as the Problogger job board.

Once you have some experience under your belt and some great feedback you can use as testimonials, start looking for companies that might need your services – marketing agencies, publishers, magazines, and even businesses – and start pitching them your services via email, or on the phone if you’re feeling brave!

Finally, here’s another perfect quote from The Editor’s Blog on what editors really do for their clients: “Editors are enhancers. They work to make what is good better, what is great, outstanding. They challenge writers. They challenge themselves.”

✏️If you want to improve your editing skills, why not read our pick of the best copy editing courses out there.

Main image credit: Kelly Sikkema


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Gill Fernley

The director of her own copywriting firm, Gill writes B2B and B2C content for SMEs and digital marketing agencies. She has a background in performing arts and writes conversational, direct sales copy for businesses on a range of topics. She’s also a keen writer of chick lit.