Making the Move to Freelance Copyediting

Bernadette Geyer | March 2011


Although economic indicators point to a recovering economy, jobs for full-time copyeditors may not be high on the list of types of jobs that are being created. In 2008 and 2009, the Washington Post, Tribune Co., and scores of national newspapers made their own news when, in order to cut operating costs, they fired dozens of copyeditors at the same time as they were expanding news operations online.1 As a result, while fewer copyediting jobs were available in print journalism, more jobs opened in digital journalism.

At its annual conference in October 2009, the American Copy Editors Society released a statement on the trend, noting, “We know journalism has to make money. But there are short-term ways to make money and long-term ways. Short-term gains are no good if they end up undermining the foundation of the business, and cutting quality control—the copy desk—decreases the value of the product, perhaps irreparably.” That’s not to say there are no positions left in the newspaper industry. The job board on the website of the American Copy Editors Society shows a continued market for full-time copy editors in the newspaper industry.

But newspapers are just one sector in the publishing industry. With the growth of e-books and digital publishing—as well as the rapid rise of the presence of online magazines, journals, and news sites—the need for professional copyeditors has also increased. Outside of the publishing industry, both large and small businesses need copyeditors for brochures and websites, annual reports and marketing materials.

According to the 3rd Quarter 2010 Online Employment Report by Elance—an online agency that provides support for freelance workers and employers seeking to hire them—Creative Skills, which includes Editing, was the second highest sector for jobs in the quarter, based on job postings on Elance and earnings by professionals registered on the site.2

For many people, freelance work is considered primarily a stepping stone toward a full-time position; for others, a full-time office job is unfeasible or undesirable. If you are one of the latter and are not currently working as a freelance copyeditor, there are steps you can take to move toward that goal.

If you are too picky about the jobs you accept,
you might end up with no clients and no income.
On the other hand, if you accept every job offer
that comes your way, you might end up over-
committed, which could hamper your ability to
provide each client with the attention they need.

The Pros and Cons of Freelancing

Making the move to self-employment is a big change and requires a person to be extremely self-motivated. The benefits of working as a freelance copyeditor include the flexibility of being able to work when you want, where you want, and for whom you want. If you are a parent, you won’t have to take “time off” when your child’s school is cancelled or if your children are sick. Granted, you will need to shuffle your workload around, perhaps working late into the night after your child goes to bed.
Although the ability to turn down work that doesn’t appeal to you may sound like a benefit, it can also be a double-edged sword. If you are too picky about the jobs you accept, you might end up with no clients and no income. On the other hand, if you accept every job offer that comes your way, you might end up over-committed, which could hamper your ability to provide each client with the attention they need. Another potential drawback to keep in mind is health insurance. If you are not covered under anyone else’s health care plan, you will need to pay for your own coverage.


Building Your Experience

There are many ways to gain experience at copyediting. If you are not already in a position that provides you the opportunity to gain copyediting skills, you might consider taking courses to learn the basics of copyediting. Many companies and websites provide courses in this area:

  • EEI Communications—Although the company refers to itself as “The Publishing Think Tank,” it is also a provider of courses in editing, writing, and a wide variety of computer programs.
  •—Specifically dedicated to copyediting, this website provides a wealth of resources, including online training modules, audio conferences, webinars, and newsletters.
  • Graduate School—Established in 1921 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide continuing education courses for adults and government workers, the Graduate School provides a certificate program in editorial practices.
  •—An online community for media professionals, features workshops in copyediting and hosts networking events in major cities around the country.

Many copyediting positions do not require the applicant to have a certificate, but experience is necessary in order to get those first freelance jobs and to gain a good reputation as a reliable copyeditor. If you are interested in working for businesses or periodicals, you should be familiar with the Associated Press and Chicago Manual of Style guides, which dictate rules for grammar, capitalization, and punctuation. Courses and books are available to help you understand each style guide:

  • The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, University of Chicago Press Staff, University of Chicago Press, August 2010.
  • The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2010, Darrell Christian (editor), Associated Press, June 2010.
  • The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, Second Edition, Amy Einsohn, University of California Press, December 2005.
  • The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself), Carol Fisher Saller, University of Chicago Press, March 2009.

If you are currently in a full-time position and do not have time or money to take courses or workshops in copyediting, you should try to incorporate copyediting duties into your current position. For example, in my first job after college I worked in the Membership Development department for a trade association. I copyedited all materials written by the department’s director and assistant director before their dissemination to current and prospective members. I was able to incorporate copyediting duties into the jobs that followed, based on the experience I gained in that first job.

If you are in a position or company that is not flexible enough to allow you to take on copyediting duties as part of your job, you can still gain experience through volunteer work. Do you belong to a Parent Teacher Association or a civic or community organization? Are there opportunities for you to proofread or copyedit materials published by the organization? Even church bulletins—which frequently contain sponsoring advertisements by local businesses—need copyeditors with an eye for detail. When I first became active in the Metropolitan Washington literary community, I began volunteering for a couple of local independent publishers, where I offered my services as a copyeditor for newsletters, magazine galleys, and book galleys. All of that experience went into my resume.

Starting Your Freelance Business

Before you even hang your shingle as a freelance copyeditor, you will need to establish your rates and decide exactly which services you wish to offer. There are ranges of rates for a variety of specialized areas, such as technical copyediting, copyediting for books, copyediting for business documents or annual reports, and copyediting for individual writers. The more experience you have as a copyeditor, the higher the rate you will be able to charge. But you must be careful to not set your initial prices too high, or you will have difficulties finding clients. There are several websites that provide information on establishing freelance fees:

Once you’ve decided which services you wish to provide and the rates you will charge for your services, you’ll need to let folks know you are in business. A website is one of the most important ways of letting prospective clients know about you and your services. There are many website services available, both free and for a fee. Whichever you choose, you want to be sure to set up a template that will look professional and appeal to the clientele you wish to reach.

  • Homestead—Provides templates and “drag-and-drop” development software that you download onto your computer. Fees vary depending on number of pages you want on your site, amount of storage needed, whether you want e-mail services, and other variables.
  • WordPress—Primarily established for people who want a blog, the templates are easily adaptable for those who wish for a simple, streamlined website. Many of the basic services are free, with fees charged for more technical services.
  • GoDaddy—This fee-based provider of website hosting services also makes available tools to help you design your own website. If you don’t want to design your own site, GoDaddy provides web design services at an additional cost.

If you plan on updating the content of your site frequently, you might want to think about selecting an option that is simple for you to design, build, and update on your own, otherwise you’ll end up paying a website developer every time you want to change even the smallest detail on your site.

The phrase “feast or famine” seems
to have been invented just for freelancers.
During times of “famine,” you want to be sure
to spend the time marketing yourself and looking
for new clients. However, you need to be careful
to not overpromise during the busy times.

After you’ve set up a website, you’ll need to market yourself. Luckily, there are a wealth of online options, using social media sites including LinkedIn and Facebook. LinkedIn is geared more towards professional networking, while Facebook has typically been much more laid-back. Both are important ways to let others know you are now “open for business.”

Another way of marketing yourself is by blogging. As long as your posts are not geared towards uploading silly cat pictures or talking about your latest health problems, blogs can be a good way of promoting your copyediting services. Andy Bechtel, a copyeditor who teaches at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill, publishes a blog called “The Editor’s Desk: Thoughts on editing for print and online media.” By writing short blog posts related to the field of editing, Bechtel not only provides entertaining content for readers, but also keeps his profile in the minds of potential clients.3

Of course, good old-fashioned face-to-face networking remains important. Have business cards printed up and hand them out to friends, family, fellow volunteers, fellow members of the PTA, and others who might one day need your services. When people ask what you do, don’t be shy—tell them you’re a freelance copyeditor and hand them your card.


Mistakes to Avoid

When you are starting out, you may be tempted to set your rates low in order to entice early clients, but this can quickly backfire if you find yourself saddled with a client whose demands on your time drive your hourly rate down even lower.

The phrase “feast or famine” seems to have been invented just for freelancers. During times of “famine,” you want to be sure to spend the time marketing yourself and looking for new clients. However, you need to be careful to not overpromise during the busy times. When you over-promise, or take on too many projects at once, you may end up feeling rushed. When you are rushed, you may make mistakes, and when you make mistakes for a client you risk losing their business.

It may seem like it should go without saying, but don’t lie about your experience. If a client requires knowledge of the Chicago Manual of Style, that’s something you cannot easily fake.


More than a Shoebox

When you are in business for yourself, you’ll need a better system of recordkeeping than a shoebox full of receipts if you’re going to avoid the scrutiny of the Internal Revenue Service. While bookkeeping may be a scary prospect for some freelancers who consider themselves better with words than with numbers, software programs such as Quicken and TurboTax make the task very feasible for the self-employed.

If you are self-employed as a freelancer, you will likely not need to “incorporate” yourself, and can therefore simply file as “self-employed” on Schedule C with your Form-1040 tax return. You will be responsible for paying your own Social Security tax as well as your own federal and state income taxes, so it is important to set aside a portion of your income throughout the year in order to have funding available to pay these when tax time comes around. If your business has very good earnings and you owe a significant amount at tax time, the IRS will likely ask that in following years you pay an “estimated tax” on a quarterly basis, instead of waiting to pay in one lump sum.

Good tax information resources for freelancers is available:

The move from 9-to-5 to freelancing is certainly not one for everyone. It requires motivation and organization. But for those who enjoy the challenges of being their own boss, it can be a rewarding career choice.


Bernadette Geyer is a freelance writer and editor in Northern Virginia. Her writing has appeared in WRITERS’ Journal, Freelance Writer’s Report, World Energy Review, and elsewhere. She has twenty years of public relations, marketing, and editorial experience, and she leads the “How2 Make a Living as a Copy Editor” workshop at The Writer’s Center.

© 2011 The Association of Writers & Writing Programs. May only be reprinted with the permission of AWP.


  1. Alexander, Andrew. “Fewer Copy Editors, More Errors.” Washington Post, July 5, 2009.

  2. Elance Online Employment Report, 3rd Quarter 2010.
  3. Bechtel, Andy. “The Editor’s Desk: Thoughts on editing for print and online media.” UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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