Why editorial freelancers need a business plan

Being a freelance editor isn’t just about words. It’s also about wages. In Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers: A Guide for New Starters, business planning imageLouise Harnby leads people with no prior experience in publishing through the steps involved in setting up a business.

Harnby is the owner of a proofreading business, an advanced member of the U.K.-based Society for Editors and Proofreaders, and the curator of the blog The Proofreader’s Parlour. She has over twenty years of experience in the publishing industry and has been running her own business since 2005.

The core advice in her first book: write a business plan.

“Your business plan forces you to think strategically about the field you are entering, who your target market is, what training and skills are needed, how long it may take you to build up your enterprise so that you have the amount of paid work you need, what resources are required, and how you will sell yourself.”

Harnby urges editors to think of themselves as business owners first and freelancers second. You wouldn’t call your plumber a freelancer, would you? she quips. One of the goals of her book is to instill business mindset in those of us naturally drawn to the beauty of language and the craft of editing, but less inclined to think strategically about running a business.

Each chapter begins with a “task” and a “learning goal” that covers an aspect of the business plan. This feature compels readers to be active – to use the guide to draft their own plan, which Harnby believes will be different for each person. The content is easy to follow with headings and subheadings, short paragraphs, bulleted lists, and features like “top tips” and “key points.”

A “practitionlouiseharnbyer focus” provides real-life examples of how freelancers have applied the learning goals. The practitioners — Kate Haigh, Liz Jones, Nick Jones, Janet MacMillan, Anna Sharman, Marcus Trower, and Louise Harnby herself – represent a fairly wide range of experience, with perhaps more concentration in proofreading and academic publishing than other fields.

The book ends with three case studies of freelancers who reflect candidly on their personal experiences of starting a business, followed by a list of resources.

Harnby says that her book is intended for “new starters” – people with no editing experience. But I would widen the audience to editors who are already working as freelancers but who haven’t thought through all that running a business entails (this is me). On my “to buy” list is her follow-up book, Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

On a personal note – next steps for me

This book prompted me to think about my freelance work in a more organized way. To ask the questions I probably should have asked at the beginning. Two points stand out.

First, I need a website. “You’d be daft not to have one,” Harnby says.

Second, I need to decide on what Harnby calls “core specialisms” or “unique selling points.” My time is thinly spread across academic copyediting and proofreading, writing consultation for students, online instruction (this fall I’m teaching WRIT 265: Editing in Academic and Professional Contexts, an online course at Queen’s University), marking for Queen’s writing courses, manuscript assessments of fiction and memoir, and copyediting of fiction and memoir. I need a focus before I can create a website.

I do wish that Harnby had provided a template or some samples of business plans. I suspect she didn’t do so because, as she says, “people order their thoughts and ideas in different ways.” As well, she views a business plan as a dynamic tool, not as a fixed template.

What about you?

Do you have a business plan? Do you intend to develop one? If you have one, do you revise it as you go?

6 thoughts on “Why editorial freelancers need a business plan

  1. This is timely for me, Ellie, as I just took the plunge and published my own editing website in addition to my current blog. I don’t have a formally written out business plan, but I did think about my target audience – self-publishing authors, with a primary focus on fiction. It’s because of this that I decided to host my site on WordPress.com, so I can reach the WordPress writer community more easily. I think it’s important to be open to revisions in your plan since you never know how opportunities can evolve.

    You certainly have an impressive resume to work from. I know a lot of editors who don’t seem to specialize in a particular niche because they enjoy the variety, and I don’t think it hurts their business. I can see why having a direction in mind can help with how to market yourself, though.

    All the best to you on setting up your site!

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  2. Hmmm….while the proffered advice is sound, does Harnby have any tips specific to freelance editors? What she says is broadly applicable to anyone starting a business. But what is special about editors? Do they need to have specific skills they can sell, any experience that would make them stand out from everyone else, or anything they can use to market themselves to a targeted market? For example, as a historian, I would like to have someone with historical training edit my work — or does this not matter? Is an editor meant to be widely competent and capable of editing anything?
    This isn’t a criticism of what you’ve written, Ellie. I’m genuinely curious about the process and want to know what Harnby thinks of it.

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    • Thanks for raising this point, Martina. Harnby’s book is aimed specifically at people who want to be freelance editors or proofreaders, not freelancers in general. My review does emphasize the business aspects of being a freelancer, and maybe that reflects my LACK of business sense — her book made me think about the business side of editing. As part of a business plan, Harnby says that editors should consider their educational background and skills. An editor should have what Harnby calls a “unique selling point.” So someone with a degree in history should take advantage of that and market themselves to historians, biographers, memoirists, and writers of historical fiction. But having expertise in a subject doesn’t automatically make someone a good editor. Harnby recognizes this, and urges would-be editors to invest in professional training. Harnby took an online proofreading course with The Publishing Training Centre in the UK before she started her business. On top of this, she mentions the technical skills required of editors, such as proficiency in using style sheets, track changes in Word or PDF markup. She says that editors should seek out training that will prepare them for a wide range of clients. So somewhat paradoxically, in addition to having a “unique selling point,” the ideal editor is a generalist who is competent in working in a wide variety of subjects, genres, and media. A SUPER editor.

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  3. I have to clarify something. My comment about being a SUPER editor comes not from Harnby’s book but from Editors Canada certification, which does require excellence across the board. When commenting, I must stick to the book! What Harnby recommends isn’t easy, but it is doable. She is practical and realistic about earning a living as an editor. To continue our historian theme, someone with a history degree or graduate degree AND editorial training may not be able to make a living working only on history-related materials. So they need editorial training that will give them the skills to work in other subject areas. It’s not ideal, but as a copy editor I work on subjects — like a book on economics — that I don’t know much about. The peer reviewers provide the subject expertise, and the copy editors the grammar and style expertise.

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