Freelance editors and proofreaders: have you ever felt as though you’re ‘muddling through’ in your professional life? You’re not alone.
The current situation has forced many of us to adjust our plans on a daily (hourly?) basis. But even without a pandemic, freelancers have to adapt to changing circumstances and come up with new plans and different ways of working. I’ve called this ‘muddling through’, but you could also call it flexibility, resourcefulness and ingenuity.
Here are seven areas where this flexibility and resourcefulness will come in handy. It’s not intended to be a list of things to worry about! Instead, it’s a recognition of the creativity and pragmatism that many successful freelancers display.
1. Your initial business idea
Most of us start out with some idea of the work we’d like to do, or for which we’d be most suited. With my NHS background, I thought I’d be the ideal person to work on health- or HR-related material. However, my first publisher client specialised in non-fiction books for the general reader, so that was that – at least initially.
You might have to review your initial business idea in the light of various factors:
If you’re determined to stick to your original vision, that’s fine. But it’s worth keeping an open mind about the direction you’re going to take.
2. Finding work and clients
Ask a group of freelance editors or proofreaders how they find work and you’ll end up with a list as long as your arm.
Some take the direct approach, contacting potential clients with speculative enquiries. Others rely on word of mouth from professional or personal contacts, or repeat business from returning clients. Most find they need to be visible, whether that’s on their own website, through a directory or bidding site, or on social media. Networking can be successful for some. And then there’s the element of luck – the chance encounter with a potential client in an unexpected place (on a train, in the school playground, at a Zoom book club), or simply the ‘you happen to be just what we’re looking for at this moment in time’ scenario.
It’s important to plan for finding work and clients so you can focus your efforts to best effect. But it also pays to be alert, flexible and ready to respond to new opportunities. To quote Louis Pasteur: ‘Chance favours the prepared mind.’
3. Technical issues
Over and above the required editing and proofreading skills, it’s vital that you have a general level of technical proficiency. You never know when you’ll need to adapt. Yes, you might be a whizz with Microsoft Word and all its features and add-ins. But what if a client suddenly wants you to proofread a pdf or a PowerPoint presentation? What if you’re asked to work in Google Docs?
It’s not about being an expert in everything. But it’s useful to be able to use a variety of tools when working on different projects. For example, you might copy text from a pdf into Word so you can use PerfectIt or your favourite macros. Copying a table of figures from Word to Excel can be a quick and accurate way of checking an author’s calculations (if that’s part of your brief). Then there’s ‘Maggying’ a corrupted Word document – copying everything except the final paragraph marker into a new document.
And would you know where on your computer to look if you couldn’t find the document you’d been working on?
It’s impossible to anticipate all possible scenarios and plan for them. But you do need to be able to think laterally if something unexpected happens – and to know when (and where) to seek help from others if you can’t solve the issue yourself.
4. Working hours
Are you a morning person? Or do you do your best work while burning the midnight oil?
It’s great to be able to choose your working times – and to decide how long you’re going to spend at work – but sometimes you might need to adjust things. How do you cope if you need to put in extra hours? Can your working space accommodate changes (for example, if you share the facilities with other family members)? How do you cope physically with doing a ten-hour day instead of your usual five hours?
Again, flexibility is the key. You need to take breaks more frequently if you’re working longer hours. Are there some tasks that don’t require quite the same level of focus as others? If so, could you work on those when your concentration is waning (in the evening, perhaps)? Can you work somewhere else if need be?
Most of us would admit that we take technology and equipment for granted. We carry on with our work routines assuming that everything will run as it should. But if disaster strikes, emergency action might be required.
Saving your work in the cloud is sensible because it means you can access it from another device (if you have something suitable).
If your internet connection goes down, you might have to use your mobile data as a short-term solution. Pre-pandemic, you might have chosen to de-camp to your local coffee shop and use their wi-fi, and we’re all hoping that’ll be possible again before too long.
Home-based freelancers might even have kind neighbours who can help (a spare laptop cable here, some emergency printing there).
While it’s useful to have a back-up plan (an old laptop you could bring back into service if your main computer fails, for example), it’s impossible to prepare for every eventuality. Again, it’s a question of thinking creatively, recognising when and where to ask for help, and knowing at what point to discuss the situation with your client if you’re not going to meet the deadline.
6. Personal or domestic emergencies
A sudden illness, a chronic medical condition, a relative needing help, unexpected childcare demands, not to mention burst water pipes and power cuts … these problems aren’t exclusive to freelancers (nor do they only happen during a pandemic). But if you’re working to a deadline, with no one else who can step in to do your work, situations like these can make things very difficult.
Of course, some people choose freelancing precisely because it enables them to work around their personal circumstances, whether that’s their own health condition or their caring responsibilities for children, elderly relatives – or even pets. It’s when the unexpected happens that additional problems can arise.
Once again, some extra flexibility is the key. Could you take a break from work and make the time up once the situation is resolved? Perhaps you can temporarily rearrange your working hours? Is there anyone who can help with childcare, even if it’s on a video call with your child while you work for a while?
Freelancers often worry about telling their clients about emergencies like this, feeling that it might make them seem unprofessional. I’ve found that clients are usually very understanding about such situations, especially if you can suggest a solution (an alternative deadline, for example). And most clients would rather know you’re struggling, even if you end up not needing extra time to finish the work. After all, they’re human too!
7. Losing a major client
It’s great when you’ve managed to secure plenty of regular, enjoyable work from a client who pays well and is nice to deal with. It’s not so great if that client suddenly disappears for some reason (bankruptcy, merger or takeover, taking the work in-house, etc.) and you’re left with a gaping hole in your work schedule. This is something that’s happened to me on a couple of occasions, and it can certainly feel like the rug has been pulled out from under your feet.
Clearly, you need to respond, but how you respond will depend on your circumstances. Here are a few ideas:
So there we have it – a quick look at how a flexible, responsive approach will help in running your business. Yes, freelancing might sometimes feel like ‘muddling through’, but perhaps we should instead see it as being creative and developing resilience. That sounds much more impressive!
Don't panic! How to stay calm in a crisis - CIEP blog – by Melanie Thomson
Seven things freelancers know about time – by Liz Jones
How freelance editing prepared me for working through the pandemic – and how it didn’t – by Liz Jones
2020: Lessons from the Longest Year – by Crystal Shelley
Buck the trend: strengthening your business during lockdown – by Rachel Gristwood
How to be lucky – by Christian Busch
Three years ago I was inspired to write my very first blog post after a trip to Tarragona in Spain. I’d attended the annual gathering of the Mediterranean Editors and Translators (MET) – the so-called MET Meeting (METM, pronounced ‘met-um’) – and this made me think about how international my work had become since I started freelancing.
This year, I decided it was time for a return visit. METM19 was in Split, Croatia, and I decided to combine the event with my annual holiday.
I spent a lovely few days acclimatising myself to Split and enjoying the wonderful weather. It’s a fascinating place with a beautiful seafront and plenty of historical interest (especially Diocletian’s Palace, which was built for the Roman emperor Diocletian in the fourth century AD and is now a maze of narrow streets full of homes, shops and restaurants).
When it came to METM itself, my first activity was one of the ‘Off-METM’ lunches. These are small groups focused loosely on a theme (ours was ‘Feedback is a two-way street’), aimed at helping delegates to get to know one another before the conference itself. There were also various optional workshops that delegates could pre-book.
After lunch, we headed to the School of Medicine at the University of Split for the start of the official proceedings. To give you a flavour of the conference itself, I’ve briefly summarised the various sessions and presentations that I attended. Because MET is an organisation for both editors and translators, the programme featured some sessions that were relevant to one or other of these different professions, and some that were relevant to everyone.
Can we make the world a better place? Realities, roadblocks and rewards for language professionals who work for philanthropic causes
Chaired by Valerie Matarese, this discussion featured Timothy Barton, Karen Shashok and Sandra Young talking about their work – both paid and unpaid – with various charitable or humanitarian clients. It was an interesting insight into how language professionals can apply their skills in different ways (and in different parts of the world).
Dealing with clients (and, indeed, potential clients) can be a minefield. From discussing the scope of the work to the thorny issue of the fee, there’s ample room to lose your cool, and possibly lose out on the work. If discussions are straightforward, there may be little need for diplomacy. But when there are points of disagreement – which often, it seems, relate to time and money – you need to strike a balance between sticking to your guns at all costs and keeping relations cordial. It’s not easy!
There’s also diplomacy in the act of editing. Whether to intervene or leave the text as it stands can be a major dilemma. How will your amendments be received by the client? Is it worth correcting every single style point or debatable grammar infringement if it’s going to cause problems further down the line? Will the client take offence at your ‘meddling’? Will that mean they’re less likely to accept your corrections when it comes to more serious errors? Is there a chance that your decision will result in a cost to them (financial, reputational or otherwise)? It’s clear that the actual decision about whether or not to make a change can sometimes require a good deal of careful thought and sensitivity.
And then there are the comments you leave for the author. Perhaps you simply can’t understand what the author is trying to say. Perhaps you can understand it clearly, but think it needs to be queried. How do you convey these thoughts in a short comment, without causing upset? Making things less personal can certainly help (‘Will the reader understand this?’ rather than ‘Your argument is complete nonsense’), but it’s still a difficult area.
If your work is part of a process involving several different stages handled by a number of different people, a diplomatic approach is essential. If there’s an element of negotiation involved – on fees, timescales or scope of work, for example – it’s a question of striking that balance between standing your ground and trying to be flexible and helpful. And if problems arise with someone else in the chain, you might need to let others know about it. Here again, a professional approach works best, even if you’re feeling upset, frustrated or angry. After all, your reputation is also at stake.
Here I’m thinking of other editors and proofreaders you interact with, either face to face or in online groups or forums. Such interactions can be a great source of inspiration, information and support, and in some cases, the basis for friendships. But sometimes even professional discussions can cause ruffled feathers. How do you react when a colleague asks a very basic question instead of consulting a standard reference book? What if someone makes a statement that you know to be inaccurate? If you feel you need to react at all, it can be difficult to find just the right tone. Once again, it’s about balance: getting your point across without turning it into a personal attack.
Family and friends
Ironically, sometimes taking a diplomatic approach is most difficult when you’re dealing with the people closest to you. For many, freelancing means balancing work and home life, often with the support of others. How do you establish the boundaries between work and family? Do you find yourself negotiating for the time and space you need? How do you respond to assumptions that ‘working from home’ means ‘available for childminding, going out for lunch, taking in postal deliveries, having long chats on the phone…’? (Yes, freelancers often do those things – it’s the assumption that we’re always available that’s the issue.) And then there’s the friend or relative who’s written a book and wants you to proofread it ‘as a favour’. How do you respond to such situations without upsetting your nearest and dearest?
1. Have some idea what you’re aiming for
Think about your ultimate objective. That might be a particular fee or timescale, or even a specific goal for the text you’re editing.
2. Consider the other person’s position
What effect will your stance – and the way you communicate it – have on them? What’s their agenda?
3. Is it worth ‘making a point’ – to an author, a colleague or a client?
In other words, is the issue so vital that you’d risk upsetting those involved? If you think it is, what’s the best way to present your viewpoint while minimising the damage?
4. Think before you speak or write
Take a moment to consider the content and tone of your message. Count to 10 (at least)!