Freelance Copy Editors Tips

Book Doctoring

If you have experience in book publishing, you may be able to find freelance jobs helping authors prepare manuscripts for submission to agents or publishers.

These jobs can be time-consuming and difficult, depending on the author’s personality and knowledge of the industry. You’ll want to be very clear about your rates and get a signed contract before beginning the work.

Be wary of authors who expect you to turn an unpolished manuscript into a bestseller, or who want to hand you their work and walk away. The best editor-author relationships are those where the author participates in the process and learns from the editor’s knowledge.

Freelance Editing for the Web

A growing area of freelance editorial work involves shaping content for websites. If you don’t already have experience editing for the web, you’ll want to read up on such subjects as SEO (search engine optimization) and web usability, to help you understand how readers interact with text on the screen.

As you work on web content, you may pick up some basics of HTML coding, and become accustomed to working in different content management systems (CMS). There’s no one standard CMS throughout the industry, but once you’ve learned how to operate in one CMS, others will be easier to master.

Get It Right

While freelance copy editors are not usually hired primarily to check facts, it’s useful to have a wide range of knowledge and the ability to spot errors.

It’s also important to have a gentle touch when editing or rewriting writers’ facts. While the writer’s expression may have needed some work, the editor who introduces an error into the story has done far worse damage than if the awkward sentence had been left alone. That’s why accuracy is often cited as one of the ABCs of editing (the others are brevity and clarity).

Help the Reader

The copy editor’s ultimate goal is to shape a piece of writing so that it achieves its goals. Often, that means finding and highlighting the main idea of the piece. If you can, work with the writer or assigning editor, but if that’s not possible, then separate the main idea from the other ideas, and be sure it is high up in the story. Then be sure the lead and the headline reflect this idea.

Be careful of “acutely aware of the obvious” leads and headlines. If you start by telling your audience that coffee can keep them awake, they’ll lose their attention span pretty quickly because you’re not telling them anything new. If your piece is really promoting a new sleep aid or decaffeinated beverage, you’ve already lost them. Instead, tell the audience something they don’t know.

Questions of Tone

The freelance copy editor is responsible not only for making sure that spelling and grammar are correct, but for making sure that the headline and copy work together to set the proper tone.

A pun in a headline may work in a lighthearted story, but not in a serious one. A story about human death usually doesn’t have room for any joking or silliness. A sales letter promoting a political candidate should carry a tone in keeping with the candidate’s message. When in doubt, seek guidance from your assigning editor or the writer.

The Consultant Copy Editor

In some organizations, freelance copy editors and writers are kept apart, with managers passing copy back and forth between them. Many editors agree, though, that their work is better when they have an opportunity to ask the writer questions, find out what the mission of the piece is, and understand the organizational goals behind it.

This involves a high level of communication, particularly if the copy editor is a freelancer working off-site. While editing, use your knowledge of the piece, the writer, and the organization to respect the writer’s voice, not rewrite the piece the way you would have written it.

The In-House Freelancer

A freelance copy editor who works on-site for a publication will have to commute, dress professionally, and work hours set by your employer. On the upside, you’ll get to meet — and, it is hoped, impress — editors and executives who might be valuable additions to your network or even sources of fulltime work.

If you’re having trouble lining up jobs for your freelance practice, it may be worthwhile to take an in-house freelance job or two just to make the industry contacts you need to build up your client list. Many publishers and media companies work through agencies to find qualified freelancers,
so this may be a useful way to get started.

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