FAQs: Working freelance

Page owner: Mentoring and tests director

Click any of the frequently asked questions below to see the corresponding answer.

Is freelance proofreading or copy-editing a viable way of making a living?

Many SfEP members make a living from freelance proofreading, copy-editing and related skills in publishing. Rates of pay vary widely and it takes time to get established.

The SfEP guide to Starting out and the course Going freelance and staying there can help you with those vital first steps. Real-life examples (see below) show how some SfEP members got started.

How can I find work?

There are a number of ways to drum up work:

  • Personal contacts are the most successful way of getting work. If you have had an editorial job in house, tell everyone – at your old company and elsewhere – that you are going freelance, giving them all your contact details and a good idea of what you can offer. Use Christmas cards to remind people that you are available, and read trade journals so that you can drop colleagues a line when they are promoted or change job. Use any excuse to keep in touch.
  • Networking is the active pursuit of professional contacts. The SfEP offers networking opportunities through its local groups, forums, professional days and annual conference. You can find information about publishing and 'chat' to like-minded people by visiting the SfEP's Facebook page and by following @TheSfEP on Twitter. You might also wish to join organisations like Business Link, chambers of commerce and other business forums.
  • Directories – The SfEP maintains a searchable online Directory of Editorial Services offered by our Professional and Advanced Professional members. It is secure, can be updated at any time and has proved to be one of the major benefits of SfEP membership. Various other directories online also list people offering freelance editorial work; however, their success rates (for the freelance) can be quite patchy. Check up on them carefully before contributing your details; many of them, unlike the SfEP Directory, can be used by spammers to harvest email addresses.
  • Advertising – As a Professional Member or Advanced Professional Member, you can take an entry in the SfEP Directory, but you can also advertise. Business cards are one obvious way to promote yourself; your own website is another. Advertising in the trade press (The Bookseller, Publishing News) may be expensive, but an advert in Yellow Pages is free – though some people say this makes you the target of marketing campaigns. You can send leaflets to local businesses – find them in the local Thomson Directory and from business groups – or get together with complementary freelances (e.g. designers, typesetters, translators) to offer a one-stop shop. SfEP Intermediate Members can advertise their skills and availability to other members in IM Available. This goes out fortnightly via SfEPAnnounce, which also carries adverts for freelance and in-house jobs.

Can you refer me to people who will give me work?

As a professional body, the SfEP is not licensed to act as a recruitment agency. It does, however, provide various opportunities for its members to get work (see above).

What are my chances of getting work?

Variable, but not good at the start. You will be competing with the established workforce, many of whom trained in a publishing company and have years of experience. And you will be vying for jobs with the many newcomers who are doing the same as you – the SfEP receives some 10,000 enquiries a year! You need to get experience and a track record. It's a Catch-22 situation.

However, some areas of publishing are more in need of freelances than others. If you have a specialism, you stand a better chance of finding work with publishers producing publications in your subject. For example, if you have a degree in engineering or law, or can cope with medicine or complex mathematics, you will probably get more business than if you are hoping to work on bestselling novels.

SfEP members are also finding new markets for their skills and services among self-publishers and non-publishers – industry, commerce, charities, local government – in fact, any enterprise or individual that produces text. However, if they have not used editorial professionals before, you may need to persuade them to try you. The SfEP course on Getting work with non-publishers can help you in approaching new clients in these areas.

Why is the SfEP so pessimistic about new freelances finding work?

The vast majority of our members confirm that it's really difficult to build up an adequate client list if you don't have either specialist knowledge or contacts in publishing, or both. We also find that newcomers underestimate how much there is to learn, how high their standards have to be and how long it takes. It helps to be businesslike and able to sell yourself.

Even these advantages may not be enough. Publishers are trying to reduce costs by eliminating or severely curtailing the editorial work done on their books, journals and websites, and often do not value the skills that were formerly expected. Many publishers now send proofreading and copy-editing work abroad, to save money.

You need to be very determined, very patient and set on this career to succeed. You also (usually) need another source of income for a while.

How can the SfEP help me?

In all sorts of ways. Apart from our name, our code of practice and the directory, we offer classroom training, distance learning, local groups, mentoring, a magazine, conference, forums and other support, including free legal advice. We have been told the SfEP forum is 'worth its weight in gold' (though we haven't weighed it) and there are specialist forums too, including one for 'newbies'. In fact our whole membership is one big network for help, advice and contacts, as well as a great way of keeping in touch.

What's the pay like as a freelance?

Usually not very good. Every year the SfEP publishes suggested minimum hourly rates for freelance proofreading, copy-editing and project management, but they cannot be enforced; in any case, each individual freelance has to agree their rates with each client. There are always some who will work for less than these rates, especially when starting out or working on a project of particular interest, and many publishers habitually pay less – some much less – than the suggested minima.

You are unlikely to have a steady flow of work, at least until you are more experienced and established. The usual pattern is 'feast or famine' and even then 20% of our members consider themselves under-employed. Your overheads – computer, printer, scanner, supplies, postage – may be higher than you think, even if working from home, and you need to put aside money for replacements, sick pay, pension, tax, professional development and holidays.

How do I get a client to pay me?

This is not really an area where the SfEP can help, though members can ask one another for their experience of clients via SfEP's Information Exchange, or get free legal advice from the legal helpline – a 24-hour telephone advisory service on all legal and related problems. Many members report slow payment, but non-payment is rare. The Better Payment Practice Campaign is also an extremely useful source of information, especially about your legal rights.

This topic is regularly discussed on the SfEP's forums, where the more experienced can advise the less. Ensuring that you get paid is, of course, a prime function of a trade union – the National Union of Journalists is the union for freelance editors and proofreaders.

Can a freelance work for just one client?

For Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC – what used to be known as the Inland Revenue) to consider you to be self-employed/freelance, you really need to work for a number of clients. If you work for just one or even two, HMRC may decide that you should be on the company payroll, with National Insurance and PAYE deductions.

Attaining self-employed status in the eyes of HMRC (and keeping it) can be a minefield – check out its Employment Status page.

Can I find editorial work if I live outside the UK?

The SfEP has a number of members outside the UK. More important than your location are the skills you have to offer. Wherever you are, if you can edit or proofread material written in (or translated into) English, there will be companies or government agencies or website owners who need your services.

Editorial work is now truly international, with editors or proofreaders often working for clients in other countries. Payment may be a problem though – you have little or no protection if a foreign client chooses not to pay you – and bank charges and exchange rates can make a big difference to what you eventually receive.

Case studies

In this section, SfEP members share their experiences of what it was like starting out.

Case study: Petra Bryce

Two years ago, I was an unhappy NHS nurse with a young son about to start school. I took a (non-SfEP) course advertised as leading to a respected qualification that would bring me work with publishers within the year.

I began writing to publishers. One added my name to their database, and that was it. After some months, I changed tactics and attended an SfEP course. I realised I needed a website and entries in freelance directories, but our resources were stretched.

Having read a book aimed at editorial freelancers, I designed my website to emphasise my strengths, and it worked! Within a month I got my first client through an online directory, with two more by the year end and my first publisher soon after. I have since invested in the PTC's Basic Proofreading by Distance Learning, and I'm confident now about upgrading my membership.

If you're considering becoming a freelance proofreader/copy-editor, you need your eyes wide open to the difficulties, especially if you have no contacts. If you're just starting out, don't be discouraged at the lack of work. It's a bumpy ride at first, but there's a lot of support in the SfEP, including a forum just for newcomers.

Case study: Sue Browning

I came to freelance editing in 2005, having been made redundant after 23 years in speech-technology research. I had no industry contacts, so after training my main challenge was to find customers.

I set up a very simple website and advertised in online directories that targeted non-publishers and focused on my specialist subjects. I also sent postcards to academic contacts to give to their post-grads and display on noticeboards. Between that and networking, both online and face to face, work began to trickle in, but it was about eighteen months before I had a steady supply of work.

In February 2007 I joined the SfEP and found SfEPLine (now the SfEP Forum) an invaluable source of information and support. My first publishing gig came via a recommendation from another SfEP member. Now about 80 per cent of my work comes from repeat customers or referrals and I'm more or less continuously busy.

Case study: Rob Crane

After several years in-house as a project editor, in February 2013 I 'made the jump' and went freelance.

The idea had been lurking in my mind for quite a while. Back in 2007 I went on the excellent SfEP course Going Freelance and Staying There and after that I started doing freelance work occasionally, so I was already writing invoices and filing self-assessment tax returns.

Once I'd decided to go freelance full-time, I was open with my former colleagues and found them all incredibly supportive, offering me contacts at various publishers, while I built up my own network and reacquainted myself with those I'd lost touch with.

My local Chamber of Commerce has given great practical help and the SfEP forums are an invaluable resource, with contributors always ready to share their expertise – no matter how repetitive some of the questions might be from us newcomers to freelancing!

So far, no regrets. I'm busy with different types of work, with more variety than I had in house, and I'm enjoying getting back to 'hands-on' copy-editing and proofreading rather than just project managing.

There's always a vague paranoia that work will dry up, but I'm channelling that into positive action!