Writing Careers – Freelance Editor

Do You have story “X-ray vision”? Are you incurably inquisitive and have extraordinary self-accountability skills? Would you like to work with authors to help their manuscripts become the best they can be? If so, you may make an excellent freelance editor! Scroll down to read more about freelance editing from an expert in the field, Deborah Halverson.


How did you get started as a freelance editor?

I edited books with Harcourt Children’s Books for ten years—until I became the mother of triplets. Suddenly, reporting to an office five days a week wasn’t feasible. So I left Harcourt and spread the word through my network that I would edit manuscripts for writers wanting editorial guidance to make their submissions to agents and editors as strong as possible. That was January 2006, before social media was a Thing. Facebook was new, and Twitter was just launching, so my business was all email exchanges, word-of-mouth, and manuscripts sent through U.S. Post. My, how the world has changed!

What is a typical day like?

As a team of one, I wear many hats in a day. To manage my all my pieces and be productive and helpful to the writers with whom I work, I’ve had to learn my energy rhythms. My editorial intensity and focus is strongest mid-day, so that’s when I’ll edit for three or four hours until my kids get out of school. In that phase I’ll read and mark up manuscripts and draft editorial letters. I bookend my day with business and correspondence. In the mornings I jump from this to that, moving through email, social media, and industry e-newsletters. Evenings after my kids go to bed are more business-focused, as I work up estimates and delivery dates for new clients, draft letters of agreement and process payments, and reply to late-day emails that can’t wait until morning. I close out my day listening to MG/YA audiobooks as I do household chores so I can keep up with new books and stay immersed in storytelling. Weekends are less structured, but I do work every day.

I’ve learned I have weekly rhythms, too. Mondays are my days to write posts for my writers advice blog DearEditor.com and plan my social media. That done, I can focus on my editing the rest of the week. I slip in an hour of bookstore perusing on Wednesdays to keep up with new releases, and I reserve Friday mornings for my own writing, meeting up with a writing pal to keep me accountable. I’ve also got a monthly appointment with myself to do a Big Picture review of my calendar and strategize my prep for upcoming speaking engagements, workshops, webinars, etc. That work must fit in somewhere, too!

What training, education or preparation would help prepare someone for your job?

A great place to find an editorial job is PW JobZone (https://jobzone.publishersweekly.com), a hub for publishing job postings. To prepare for an editorial career, you can:

  • Earn a copyediting certificate. You can do it online or in person around the country. I earned mine from UCSD’s Extended Studies. I know it was a significant factor in landing my first editorial assistant job because the managing editor told me so. (http://extension.ucsd.edu/programs/index.cfm?vAction=certDetail&vCertificateID=41)
  • Attend a summer publishing program, or intern for a publisher or literary agent. Learn the industry while developing your editorial sensibility and vocabulary. You can search for internships online (some publishers post them on their websites), or reach out to your favorite publisher or literary agency to ask about internship opportunities.
  • Join the Editorial Freelancer’s Association. (http://www.the-efa.org/) I’m not a member because I’ve never needed to be, but I understand freelance projects get posted there on the Job List and you can apply for them. That could be a way to build up a clientele and get word of mouth going even as you start making money by completing projects. EFA offers editing classes, and its website has articles about running your business, rates charts, etc. There’s a community there, too. 
  • Subscribe to Publishers Weekly and to industry e-newsletters. Get familiar with the business of publishing, especially the area that interests you. I get daily and weekly free e-newsletters from Publishers Lunch, PW Daily, PW Weekly, Children’s Bookshelf, and Publishers Lunch. Go to PublishersMarketplace.com and PublishersWeekly.com to choose the e-newsletters that are right for you. (PW is expensive so I don’t get the full magazine.)
  • Spend time in bookstores. Know the current market so you can acquire smartly and edit with a specific audience in mind.
  • Read craft books. Learn how to talk about storytelling elements, how to evaluate them, and how to address the story weaknesses you identify. The two craft books I wrote focus on middle grade, young adult, and new adult fiction and their markets: Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies and Writing New Adult Fiction. Don’t just read about your genre of interest. I like On Writing Horror: A Handbook fy the Horror Writers Association and Writing Romance For Dummies because they expanded my ability to guide authors writing romance in YA fiction and help everyone develop strong atmosphere and tension.
  • Read deeply in your category/genre of interest. Know the styles and trends of that market segment. Be a reader so you’ll know reader expectations in that marketplace. Read critically to understand why you like a story, plot, or character, or why you don’t, and challenge yourself to articulate those reactions. If you see a weakness, articulate how you’d guide the writer in revision.

What resources, professional journals, organizations or social media sites keep you informed about your industry?

In addition to reading the e-newsletters I mention above, I am a member of the Society of Children’s Books Writers & Illustrators (scbwi.org). I also subscribe to Cynsations blog, a daily blog for children’s books writers. Daily newsletters easily get overwhelming, so while I follow links in those newsletters to read more on topics that interest me, I limit myself to these daily resources. There are many other great blogs and newsletters. I am in contact with other freelance editors via social media, and I belong to the public Kidlit Alliance and KIDKLIT411 groups on FB.

What skills do you think help you do your job well?

Time management and personal accountability are vital. My editing skills are useless if I can’t get the job done. Hence the hyper-organization evident in my “typical day” answer above!

Strong communication skills are essential. I must articulate abstract ideas to writers, and help them do the same for me as we work out a manuscript’s needs before, during, and after an edit. Expectations must be clear, and we must have a clear, actionable revision strategy in place by the end of the edit so the writer can move forward productively. I touch in with them throughout the process, and I strive to be responsive afterward if they have questions when revising. Handing over one’s manuscript for feedback is scary! It’s an emotional and financial investment. Thus, compassion, encouragement, and support should be part of an editor’s DNA.

Understanding how the pieces of a story work together is an important skill. I’m a developmental editor. I know grammar and punctuation, but I’m not a copy editor so that’s not my focus. I look at a story and see its many individual elements, which I scan for weaknesses to address and for strengths to amplify. Editors have a sort of x-ray vision with stories. It’s like looking at a human body and seeing not just the skin, hair, and clothing, but also the bones, muscles, organs, veins, and cells. I understand how story pieces interact, and I know that if we tweak this item over here, those three items over there will improve, too. For example, when I see someone overusing bland verbs like look, smile, frown, see, turned to, and the like, I encourage the writer to replace those with more dynamic verbs or rewrite the passages completely—and then suddenly their characters and setting get richer, there’s more emotion in the story, and the pacing kicks up. I’ve learned that when a writer hears “there’s not enough emotion in this story,” the fix might be something that’s not obviously related to emotion. That’s the kind of expertise an editor brings to a project.

What type of person would be a good fit to be a freelance editor?

I think an editor must be incurably inquisitive, and a freelancer must be self-accountable almost to a fault. My mom says I was the kid who wouldn’t stop asking, “Why?” It drove her nuts, but it makes writers happy. As I read their manuscripts, I ask why this and why that—and all the other W words I learned from Mrs. Kaplan in fifth grade: Who? What? Where? When? (And How?) Every character growth should be earned, every motive believable, every plot event supported. I tell the authors I work with, “It’s my job to question everything so that readers can’t question anything.” When editors ask questions of a story, we can spot weaknesses then work out revision strategies.

What are the up sides of your job?

I love my job! I get to meet and work with creative people who are passionate about the power and craft of storytelling—and about their readers. Writers put their trust in me, which often means opening up about their fears and their dreams and the challenges and victories of writing books. What a privilege to get to know someone that way. Every day I strive to be worthy of that emotional intimacy. I’m personally fulfilled by the editing itself—I love puzzling out stories, and diving deep into character motivations and plot intricacies. Fun! I like staying up-to-date on the industry so I can present expertly and thoughtfully at writing workshops and conferences. And I will be forever grateful for the time I’ve had with my sons thanks to the flexibility of freelancing.

What are the down sides of your job?

The downsides of my job are wholly related to the nature of being a freelancer, not the work itself. First—writers can relate to this!—editing is sedentary, and it turns out sedentary jobs can be extremely painful. A body that doesn’t move stiffens. A body that isn’t ergonomically cared for suffers repetitive movement injuries and back, leg, joint pain. So, while it’s a daily mental battle to ignore the work that calls to me as soon as I wake up, I resist that call and exercise as soon as my kids go to school. That exercise happens outside, where I can breathe fresh air and look far into the distance to exercise my eye muscles. I swim, cycle, hike, or walk. I also stretch for half an hour every morning and evening. It’s vital to my health, mindset, and productivity. But hey, since I listen to MG/YA audiobooks while exercising, I’m still working, right? Take that, inner guilt! J

Another downside to freelancing is the cocooned feeling you get when you work and live in the same space. So, I work outside of my house. When I’ve got a lot of writing to do, such as an editorial letter or a blog post, I grab a table at a local coffee shop. If I’ll be doing a lot of reading, I work at the park in my “mobile office”: my minivan, with its comfy captains seats, windows rolled down for a breeze, and the park’s green fields and a distant view of the ocean. Bonus: I periodically stroll the park to stretch my legs and to relax my eyes and mental intensity for a bit.

Any words of advice for people interested in this job?

Read, read, read. Then read some more.

Deborah Halverson spent a decade editing books for Harcourt Children’s Books before becoming the award-winning author of Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies, Writing New Adult Fiction, the teen novels Honk If You Hate Me and Big Mouth, the picture book Letters to Santa, and three books in the Remix series for struggling readers. She has been working with authors—bestsellers, veterans, debut, and aspiring—for more than twenty years. Deborah is now a freelance editor, founder of the popular writers’ advice site Deareditor.com, and advisory board member for the UC San Diego Extension “Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating” certificate program. She speaks extensively at workshops and conferences for writers and edits adult fiction and nonfiction while specializing in teen and tween fiction, new adult fiction and picture books. DeborahHalverson.com.

Twitter: @Dear_Editor

Instagram: deareditordotcomdeborahhalversonbooks

Facebook: DearEditorcom, DeborahHalverson

Readers! Deborah has gone above and beyond for us – she is offering a free giveaway! Follow this link to enter to win a signed copy of Deborah’s popular and informative craft book WRITING YOUNG ADULT FICTION FOR DUMMIES. Our heartfelt thanks to Deborah for her generosity!

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9 Responses

  • Very interesting interview. As I have heard before, the best way to know if you want a certain job is to ask the people who already do that job. I have a book idea that I think would be great but it’s hard to get it off the ground. Thanks for this opportunity. 🙂

    • I agree with that advice – I’ve learned so much from this Writing Careers series, things I never would have thought of, but make perfect sense. I know it’s hard to find the time to turn a great idea into a manuscript. Good luck with it!

  • Deborah is an amazing editor, and an awesome human. 😊 I’m working on 2 YA novels now, so this book would be a great help.

  • I’ve been a freelance editor for about three years, and I agree that it’s hard (but necessary) to force ourselves to exercise early in the day — it’s so easy (and so dangerous) to promise ourselves that we’ll do it later . . . and then forget all about it as we immerse ourselves in work.

    You are absolutely right that a good editor — and a good writer, for that matter — needs to read a LOT. I think that’s the most important thing that regularly gets squeezed off the agenda as deadlines bear down on us.

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