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