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How to Get Started as a Freelance Copy Editor – Shannon Page

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Network, network, network. Really, this is the most important point, so much so that it should be #1 on the list, except that if you don’t have some financial cushion in place, you’re dooming yourself before you even get started.

Networking is how this is going to work. It’s where you’re going to start, and it’s where you’re going to keep pushing even after you’ve gotten started. Long after. And (surprise!), it’s the thing I have the most to say about.

It’s a scary word, though, isn’t it? “Networking? How do I even?” It’s why I didn’t make it as a Realtor — I just didn’t know enough people who wanted to buy a house or sell a house. Even the few people I did know who were looking to make a move — I couldn’t convincingly explain to them why I, a completely inexperienced newbie, was the right person to handle probably the biggest single financial transaction they were going to make in their entire lives.

But everyone has to start somewhere. Every successful, experienced Realtor was an inexperienced newbie at first; somehow, they convinced that first client to take them on, and somehow, they made that first sale.

Somewhere, you will find someone who is willing to take a chance on handing you real, actual, honest-to-god money to copy edit their book.

How do you find that someone? Go to the places where your people are. My niche started as fantasy and science fiction — I’m a fantasy writer — so I went to all the local and regional conventions (“cons”) I could find, and to all the WorldCons and World Fantasy Cons I could afford. I also looked for my community online, reading and commenting on the blogs of other writers, as well as agents and editors and publishers; and I wrote regular blog posts of my own. (Ah, the lovely lost days of LiveJournal.) Both in person and virtually, over time I found and built a huge community.

Now, the reason I thought I was going to all these cons and spending so much time on LiveJournal was so my writing could get discovered. What happened instead was that I made a ton of friends, had a huge amount of fun, and made a bunch of “industry” connections.

I put industry in scare quotes because publishing is SO not a monolith. The “publishing industry” today is an ever-changing jumble of big New York publishers and well-established boutique presses and brand-new micropresses and beginning self-published writers and academic presses and hugely successful self-published writers and foreign presses and writers looking to polish a manuscript to submit to agents and publishing cooperatives and a few well-meaning folks with great ideas and not enough money and just about any other configuration you can think of.

All of whom need copy editors.

Figure out where your people gather — in person, online, or both. Are you a scientist, a mother, a doctor, a romance writer, a foodie? Where are your areas of expertise; what kinds of books do you read? Those are your people, and I promise you, they are talking to one another. Go there. Join that conversation. Be interesting, and authentic, and interested in them; and let people know you are trying to build your freelance client list.

It’s going to be awkward. OH YES MY FRIEND, it’s awkward. I mean, not the part about hanging out in the con bar and meeting fun people and making connections. But the part about asking for work.

I didn’t do that right away — remember how I mentioned that that’s not what I thought I was doing, when I first started going to cons. But even though I had lots of friends in “the industry” by the time I started deliberately trying to build my business, it was still just painful. On more than one occasion, I’ve made the circuit of the dealer’s room at a con, stopping at every small press table and indie-author table, introducing myself and handing out my business card and asking them to keep me in mind.

That resulted in several clients — two, I think…and a whole lot of cheerful, friendly Thanks but no thanks! and We’ll keep you in mind! responses.

It’s a numbers game, and a time game. Even those two that I can think of didn’t turn up in my email right away — it was months, at least, after I’d dropped my card at their table, before I heard a peep.

But one of those that did show up is not only still a client to this day, but they later referred me to another client who began my fractally-increasing referral network. You never know who that active node is going to be. Just keep showing up. Keep asking. Keep trying.

Sub-point to this point: It’s great to have other copy editors in your referral network, and I do have a small list of folks I send work to when I’m overwhelmed, but honestly? We’re not the best people to be referring. The few people whose names I hand out most frequently, I do so because they’ve worked on my own books. My fiction, that I wrote, my own self. I don’t know their work because I’m a copy editor; I know their work because I’m a writer.

Writers are going to be your best source of referrals, followed by publishers. I’m going to be very reluctant to pass along the name of a copy editor whose work I haven’t engaged with deeply. If I don’t know first-hand how good they are, I don’t want to take the chance of endorsing them and potentially looking bad.

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