A writer’s perspective on editing

lightbulb-png-824I haven’t blogged so much in the past few months. I’m quite relaxed about that – I don’t hold myself to a strict schedule, and prefer to put up a post when I have something particular to say. However, recently it fell by the wayside for another reason – I was finishing the first draft of my second novel, and that took all my spare time. (The first novel, written earlier this year, I am choosing to think of as a warm-up, unless anyone out there is actively looking for a tale of a drug-fuelled-yoga-weekend-cum-eco-apocalypse narrated by a middle-aged divorcée who thinks she’s Holden Caulfield. No?)

I’ve learned a lot of useful stuff from pursuing my own writing alongside regular editing work (no, I can’t yet afford to give up the day job). Much of what I have found out I hope to use to inform future creative writing endeavours. But some of my lightbulb moments will also feed back into my practice as an editor.

Here are five things I’ve learned:

  • WRITER LIGHTBULB: In a long manuscript, repetition is probably inevitable. This can happen at a macro level (themes and scenes that recur), and at a micro level (words and phrases that are overused, or unusual similes that are considerably less arresting on their third outing). As an editor I often encounter writerly tics in otherwise very clean, well-written manuscripts – certain constructions that just keep popping up. And in the past these would always puzzle me. ‘Can’t they see what they’re doing there?’ I would mutter under my breath. Well, the answer is, probably not. EDITOR LESSON: Repetition happens, no matter how careful the writer. Enjoy the frisson of doing your job, fix it … and get over it. 
  • WRITER LIGHTBULB: Continuity errors are completely normal. For example, I am amazed by the fact that even though the beginning parts of my novel only burst into existence back in the summer, there are stonking great passages that I have entirely forgotten writing. To me, this emphasises the near-certainty that there will be continuity errors in a manuscript of any kind above a certain length. I have quite a high capacity for retention of written information, as editors do, but even I simply can’t hold a whole novel in my head, even though it all came out of my head. There are just too many words, and I’m human. EDITOR LESSON: Be sympathetic to the differences between writing and editing. Writing fiction really can be a bit like being in a trance, but good editing is quite the opposite. It’s not possible to do both at the same time, and it’s important to get the best out of multiple passes.
  • WRITER LIGHTBULB: Distance from the work is essential. Never before have I felt so convinced of the need for psychological distance from a piece of work in order to edit it – either through time, or by being completely dissociated from the creation of the work, or preferably both. Case in point: right now I can hardly bear to look at the thing. It makes me feel positively queasy. And I’m not ready to show it to anyone else just yet either. EDITOR LESSON: If ever I need to sell my services to someone new, an important point is the complete objectivity I provide. People used to hiring editors know this already; those yet to be convinced might not.
  • WRITER LIGHTBULB: It’s hard to let go. Having said I can’t stand to look at it, it’s also my baby. In the past, in common with most editors, it’s just possible I might have been guilty of moaning about certain very difficult authors, or even being less than sympathetic about their reluctance to make changes. Well, those days are officially gone, I swear. Finally, I totally get it. If I ever get to the point of submitting my baby to the tender ministrations of a copy-editor, I just know I am going to morph into that nightmare author myself (though I’ll try my best to be nice; editors are people too). EDITOR LESSON: Always, always, be sensitive in dealings with authors. I know it’s hard to believe, but they’ve usually put a lot more into their work than we have, in terms of hours and soul.
  • WRITER LIGHTBULB: Coffee helps massively. But not just coffee; for me it’s part of a larger routine, which has helped me sit down and do it, day after day. Just like being a freelance editor, you have to show up and put in the time, whether you feel like it or not, if it’s got any hope of being viable. EDITOR LESSON: Mmm, coffee. Did someone say coffee? Are you making?

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Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. When she grows up she also wants to be an author.

Recapitating the chicken

chickenRecently I’ve been running around like the proverbial headless chicken, worrying about work and various personal projects – finding too much to do in the time, feeling at the mercy of external forces in terms of how I organise things, and succumbing to the pressures that seemingly make it difficult for all involved to produce a good end result … you get the picture.

Working alone suits me brilliantly in all sorts of ways, but I confess that I’m not always the best at not letting things get to me. I care deeply about the things I do, and doing a good job – which is generally positive, but it also makes me extremely hard on myself, and I know a lot of my friends and colleagues are the same.

It got to the point where I was considering setting up a whole new project in Toggl devoted to worrying about other projects rather than actually doing them … which was perhaps the wake-up call I needed to chill out and take it all a little less seriously. (And not only because I would have descended into some kind of stressed tailspin thinking about what colour to make the worrying project, honest.)

Instead I had another cup of coffee, moaned to my long-suffering in-house barista/IT department, chatted to some friends about it on Facebook, and came up with a list of strategies to put the hapless chicken back together.

1. Breathe

This is going to sound a bit silly, but I did at one low point stand in the kitchen trying to remember everything I learnt at NCT antenatal classes seven years ago. And it turned out that a bit of slow, careful breathing did actually calm me down in the short term. At this rate I might even think about trying meditation again.

2. Rewrite the to-do list

I’m a lover of to-do lists (hard copy, in nice notebooks), but recently I’ve noticed that the lists have turned into a nightmarish scrawl of randomly ordered and crazily angled items, often with no clear order or hierarchy. I try to number them retrospectively, but the whole thing turns into a frantic mess, with decimal points for afterthought items that need to be slotted in, sub-bullets, and furious rings and highlights for Things That Must Definitely Be Done Now Or All Hell Will Break Loose.

I already use iCal for deadlines and appointments, but for the day-to-day things I do like a list … however, it’s no use if the list becomes a source of stress in itself, and the longer-term (and arguably more important) strategic stuff inevitably gets overtaken by the more urgent tasks. A friend suggested I look at Trello, and I could certainly see it working well for some of the more fun, inspiring goals that otherwise get crowded out. Perhaps I can learn to use it for daily and weekly work deadlines, too. And then if there were just a button I could click to instruct it to do everything, too, that would be splendid …

3. Share problems

I always think I’m quite good at communicating when it comes to work. I keep clients updated regularly on longer projects, and try to keep on top of all the little details with larger projects so that I can keep everyone in the loop. But I know that I also have a tendency to play up the idea that everything’s fine and I can cope, when perhaps I should be pointing out that certain aspects are beginning to be problematic. The sooner small problems are addressed, the less likely they are to escalate into massive ones. There is no shame in asking for more support when you need it. And there is no use in battling on alone and keeping problems hidden until the point at which it’s much harder to sort them out.

4. Be realistic

Coming back to my beloved lists, another bad habit I know I need to break is writing too many things on the list. If I never get to the end of a list, I am bound to feel bad. If I do nothing else from this point forward, I have to stop routinely giving myself almost impossible goals. I will break things down into smaller, more manageable chunks with sufficient time devoted to them, and conquer them that way. Piece by piece.

5. Do something else

This is the classic, of course, but it works. Go for a walk (I walk to pick the children up from school every day). Go for a run (I haven’t done this for ages, and I really should!) …

This week, too, I have been particularly worried about various things I need to do or organise for the children for school, as well as work. At one point I was getting way too worked up about sorting out costumes for them to dress up as Sendakian Wild Things (as you do) … but then I started making some masks, got really carried away with white card and masking tape (it was like being back at architecture school) and it turned out to be incredibly therapeutic, even if not chargeable by the hour. Especially because it wasn’t chargeable by the hour. Then another day I picked up my poor, neglected trumpet and played for 30 minutes. It sounded terrible (with apologies to our lovely next-door neighbour), but it felt great. Both things totally cleared my head and enabled me to return to work refreshed.

And right now, once I post this blog, I am going to go out for half an hour … with no fixed idea of where I might go, and nothing special to get done. And I feel better already, just typing it!

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Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She sometimes does need to be reminded to chill out.   


Bang for a limited buck

8038-illustration-of-bang-text-pvAs freelance editors we’ve all been there: a prospective client has a list of things they would like you to do, and they also have a budget, and the two don’t appear to be related. So what practical steps can you take to ensure that you are paid a decent rate, and that the client is happy with the service they have received?

Usually I’d be quick to advise simply not taking on less well-paid work if you could spend the time looking for a more lucrative gig. But what I’m talking about here is not dismal, badly paid editorial grind, or outright exploitation, but rather work that needs to be approached with a bit of creativity and pragmatism to get the best out of it in terms of pay while still providing a valuable service – and it’s not the same thing at all. There are valid reasons for clients of all kinds not having unlimited budgets, and there are also valid reasons for taking on jobs that might not seem like big earners at first glance, but if tackled carefully can result in a perfectly acceptable – sometimes very good – rate. These reasons to persist might include subject matter that interests you, a longstanding client you like, a client who always pays quickly, or a job that turns up just at that moment when you have a little unexpected time to fill.

When faced with a job with a tight budget, here’s how I would approach it.

Assess the work

This is the first thing to do whatever kind of work you are offered. But with a job that seems to have a limited budget, it’s vital. On closer inspection you might conclude that the client is having a laugh in terms of what they expect for the money. On the other hand, it might become clear that the brief is realistic, and in proportion to the budget offered. Perhaps the text is already in extremely good shape. Or maybe the client is asking for a restricted service. You might even be able to advise them on exactly what they do need (and what they don’t), if they are unsure. What at first glance looks unreasonable, might not be.


Having said that the budget might turn out to be realistic, there’s always the possibility that it really isn’t. If it’s nowhere near (you suspected the client missed off a zero somewhere; turns out they didn’t), now’s the time to walk away and not look back. The hardest situations I find, though, are where I conclude that the money on offer is very nearly enough. But still not quite.

Don’t panic – work out what you would want to charge for the work, and see if you can get the client to pay the extra. If they really want you to do the job, and do it properly, the chances are they’ll be able to squeeze a bit more out of the budget.

Don’t deviate from the brief

Editors are renowned perfectionists … and it’s just possible that some clients use this fact to get away with asking too much of us for too little. If you’re working on a project with a limited budget, it’s vital for your bottom line and your sanity to focus, stick to the brief, and not do more than you are being asked to do. Don’t give the client the gold valet service if they’ve only paid for the jet wash. It’s not fair on you – and also, you might end up missing things the client feels are most important in pursuit of perfection elsewhere.

Be strict

Figure out how much time you have to spend on the work, and don’t exceed this. It sounds obvious, but it’s all too easy to be seduced into going the extra mile – we are programmed to do this. As business owners we know we have to go above and beyond, and provide excellent service to ensure repeat business – but still, this doesn’t mean doing work we should be being paid for, but aren’t.

Monitor progress: break the job down into smaller chunks, and ensure as you go that you’re not taking longer than you should to reach critical milestones. If you are, you need to reassess what you are doing in order to speed up, or alert the client – if they can’t up the budget, they can decide where they would like you to concentrate your efforts.

Be particularly wary of things being added to the job after you’ve started, just as you always would. On a well-paid job it might be possible to be more relaxed about minor infractions (discuss!), but if the budget’s already tight and non-negotiable, it is simply not your responsibility to accommodate extra, unexpected work.

Evaluate your practice

Working within tight constraints (schedule or budget) can provide an excellent opportunity to evaluate your working methods. Could you work smarter? Could you do anything differently? Do you have bad habits that are slowing you down? Are you making changes that are non-essential – not in the brief, not in the house style, just matters of personal taste? (Naughty, naughty …) This is the perfect chance to assess whether you are operating in a lean, efficient way – which will pay off big time on all the jobs you do, not just the ones with restricted budgets.


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Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008.  



Image from freestockphotos.biz


Converting put-downs into pitches

fullsizerenderI’m an editor, and I’m good with words. I work with words more or less every day, in one way or another, and people pay me a respectable amount to do it … and even when I am not editing, often I am reading or writing for pleasure. And I’ve been doing this for the best part of twenty years. I run a successful business, with great clients and work I mostly enjoy. But sometimes, when I am talking to people about what I do, my facility with words deserts me, and I crumble. I forget all of this positive stuff, and descend into a mire of self-deprecation.

I went to the SfEP conference at the weekend, had a brilliant time catching up with friends and colleagues, and came back fired up with loads of new ideas and objectives for continuing to develop my editorial business. And yet … over the course of the weekend, still I came out with some absolute clangers when called upon to describe my professional self and what I do. There I was, damning myself with faint praise, over and over again. And to be fair, I know I am far from being the worst offender the editorial community has ever seen in this department … Editors tend to be nice people, and often they are modest people, too. Which is great when it comes to putting ego to one side and respecting the author’s voice … but not always so great when it comes to speaking up, putting yourself forward and telling people in no uncertain terms what you can offer.

Here’s a small selection of things I found myself saying, and what I need to remember they really mean next time I open my mouth.


“Being an editor is all I really know how to do”

For a start, this isn’t even true! I have a degree in architectural studies, and worked for an architect for a year in Malaysia after graduating, before I decided to work in publishing instead. But the point is, I should be proud of the fact that I have devoted my career so far to working in this fantastic industry. I should emphasise it rather than sounding embarrassed, as if it were the result of some kind of failure of imagination. I love publishing, and I worked extremely hard to get a foothold back in the 1990s. These days I know a lot about it, and in several distinct areas too (trade non-fiction for adults and children, and educational resources, if you’re asking). I’ve managed or edited thousands of projects, and I know exactly how to slot into lots of bits of the process – from project management, to development editing, to copy-editing, to proofreading, to localisation. And I work in InDesign, too. In short, I’m passionate, versatile and extremely experienced.

A similar principle would also apply to someone who didn’t work in publishing before they became a freelance editor, though. I’ve lost count of the times I have heard people say they have no experience … forgetting to mention the decades of relevant and transferrable experience they have amassed doing other things.

What I should say: “I’m a publishing veteran, with almost 20 years’ wide-ranging editorial experience” 


“Speaking in front of a room full of people terrifies me”

This is sort of true – I am the kind of person who dreads the school gates, because I might have to talk to people … and I even like quite a few of them. But still, I have done it, more than once (speaking in front of a room, that is, not going to the school gates) – and if I am asked to do it again, I’ll definitely do it again, as long as it’s a subject that interests me. I know the only way I can get better is to keep practising it, just like anything else. And it’s actually something I do want to do. I like helping people, specifically newer editors, which is part of the reason I blog and work as a mentor. Talking to people about aspects of freelancing or editing is one more way to do this, and it helps to develop my practice, too. And the feeling afterwards is great.

What I should say: “I’m not afraid to do things that are outside my comfort zone, and I aim to improve each time I do them” 


“I still work mainly for publishers”

Don’t get me started on the publisher thing. Publishers are often given a blanket bad name: people say they don’t pay enough. So it can sound like a cop-out even to admit to working for publishers, when all the cool kids have found different clients. However, it’s simply not true to say that all publishers pay badly and don’t respect freelances, because plenty of them do understand our value and are prepared to pay for it. And I choose to work with publishers because I have something specific to offer them – expertise. I know how the book production process works. I can help solve problems, not contribute to them, and my clients know this. They hire me because they already know I provide the level of service they want, or someone else has recommended me. It gives me a kick to work for people who clearly understand and value the work I do. This isn’t the case for all categories of client.

Having said all that, I also work successfully with non-publishers, and it is an aspect I want to continue to develop. One of my favourite regular clients is not a publisher in the traditional sense. I enjoy working with indie authors on the right project. And I like working with businesses, too. I’m capable of adapting what I offer to help a variety of clients craft and polish their copy. It’s just that much of what I choose to do is books. It’s the element of choice that’s the key, just as in so many aspects of freelancing.

What I should say: “I choose to count a number of high-profile publishers among my clients” 


“It only took me half an hour in front of the TV”

When I said this I was referring to a silly item of headgear I made to wear to the Gala Dinner at the conference, for which I did receive a lot of compliments (see picture). But this flippant comment is loaded with misguided notions of virtuously pouring too much time into projects as editors, flagellating ourselves, and that in itself being a thing worthy of pride – which is a widespread disease. I try not to do this, but I am clearly not immune.

How good or worthy something is doesn’t always correlate to how much time we spend on it. Sometimes it’s great to produce a labour of love. And I definitely believe there is no substitute for long experience. But many of the best ideas can germinate quite quickly – even if it took ten years of hard work to reach the state of mind in which they might take root and grow.

I’m not saying my paper-clip tiara is a work of genius, but I do find it interesting that I was keen to diminish it just because it didn’t take me long to put together. It was still a neat idea. And I should remember to be proud of some of the more business-related ideas I have, too.

What I should say: “I had a moment of creative inspiration, and worked to make it a reality” 


So starting now, I have resolved to try to change my attitude. I am going to remember to throw my shoulders back and sell myself when asked, not sell myself short.


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Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008.  

The books that made me

fullsizerenderIt’s such a cliché to be an editor who loves books. But there, I’ve said it: I love books. Almost more than food, or Bourne films. For me it’s not just the words; it’s the physical thing. Yes, sometimes I read ebooks. And I read all sorts of online material for fun. But nothing comes close to the thrill associated with the physical object. Here are a few of my formative book-related memories.

My dad’s books

We didn’t have an especially big house when I was growing up, but I quickly learnt that when it comes to bookshelves, any interior vertical surface is fair game. My dad was a librarian in those days (he later suggested I apply for the job in the library; see below), and had so many books of his own that he actually catalogued them. So from the time I first became aware of my surroundings, they included a lot of books. And the books kept mysteriously multiplying, too … which I’m not sure my mum always appreciated. Now I have my own house, sometimes I do look around and see alarming areas of bare wall. Still, it’s always good to have a challenge.

9780224020862-ukA wonderful book that terrified me

Sometime in the early eighties, Father Christmas gave me The Human Body, by Jonathan Miller and David Pelham. This was an amazingly detailed pop-up book, with fantastic artwork and paper engineering, and frankly terrifying text. I loved this book so much, but it also gave me nightmares. It’s just possible it was too much information for eight-year-old me. But still, I couldn’t stop reading it, looking at it, and opening and closing it to make things happen. A truly beautiful book, and perhaps one of the first books that made me appreciate the power of words and pictures working together. I still love highly illustrated books today – for pleasure and for work.

Love in the book stacks

At an age when I should have been running around after human objects of desire, I had a dream Saturday job as a book fetcher in the University Library in Cambridge. To this day I haven’t found an olfactory experience to compare with the scent of the book stacks beneath the West Room, and that includes the mingling of the pines with the Pacific on the Californian coast, and the smell of my children’s heads when they were babies. There’s just something about all those leather bindings; all that paper worn thin by the flicking of endless fingers (or not, in the case of some of the drier titles). When a request slip came in, I did my best to find the book quickly, but it was inevitable that sometimes I would get sidetracked. So many books to read, and so little time …

Every bookshop I have been in, ever

Do you get that panic, when you go into a bookshop? Any bookshop … the oppressive knowledge that it’s filled with lovely, lovely books, and you can probably only really justify buying one or two of them; certainly not more than you can actually carry. Your heart beats faster, you start to sweat, and you end up handing over your debit card with shaking hands, having to forcibly restrain yourself from the purchase of last-minute novelty items at the till, just because they contain the word ‘book’ … OK, glad it’s not just me.

imagesA bruising publishing experience

About eight years ago, I set up a small publishing company with my husband in my spare time. We published two books – The World and Wikipedia, and The Mechanics of Songwriting. I remain proud of what we achieved – we produced books we were proud of that people actually bought; we had distributors on both sides of the Atlantic; we got a review for the Wikipedia book in the Evening Standard the week it changed into a freesheet and circulation hit 600,000; we organised some interesting interviews which appeared in the songwriting book; we did everything ourselves, from editing to arranging the printing. But, truth be told, we lost a lot of money! The debts are all long paid off, but I learnt from that just how hard it is to make a profit on traditional publishing, printing physical books. I know what I am best at – helping to put books together – and I restrict myself these days to that part of the process (project managing, developing, editing, proofreading), shouldering none of the financial risk myself. But I will always sympathise with and be grateful for those who are prepared to take the risk.

All books I’ve edited or written

This is a love/hate thing. The books I have worked on now run into the hundreds, perhaps more (I lost count a while back), and I have only encountered a fraction of those in the flesh. Sure, I like to see a pretty stack of them, winking at me from across the room. But could I sit down and actually read a whole one? No way …

I know these recollections are hugely personal. But then our responses to books always are! I would love to hear some of yours in the comments … 

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Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She can’t resist the lure of a good book. Or a mediocre book. Or even quite a bad book. Mmm, books.

Seven things I’d tell the newbie me


Nurture it carefully, and it will bear fruit!

This post is inspired by a short summary I’ve been preparing for a mini-presentation on pricing editorial work at the upcoming SfEP Conference. When it comes to the thorny issue of fees, there are many things I wish I’d known when I was starting out, to avoid some hair-raising mistakes. And when it comes to freelancing in general, there are plenty of things I would also like to have known … only because if I had, I might have slept a little easier in the early years. So here’s what I would tell the newbie freelance me, if I met her now.

Don’t take things personally
It can feel like the hardest thing in the world, at first, to negotiate decent rates or to stand up to clients in the face of cheeky demands. It’s too easy to come over all self-deprecating, or to bend over backwards trying to please. Editors are often extremely nice, quite modest people, and it can feel, frankly, a bit hard-nosed to demand what you are worth, to set ground rules or to say no to unreasonable requests. But this is a mistake. Sticking up for yourself in a professional capacity has nothing to do with being nice as a person in other aspects of life. It’s just business.

But, offer a personal service
There are loads of other proofreaders and editors, so why would your clients keep coming back to you? And how can you persuade new ones to try you out? Part of the answer lies in specialisation. For example, you might focus on particular subjects or genres. Or you might specialise in working with a particular type of client. Another thing that might set you apart is your publishing experience or particular professional background, which some clients will value highly. Finally, though, remember that it’s the little personal touches that can also help you win repeat business. Always be nice to clients, and thank them when it’s appropriate. Try to treat clients and colleagues as you would like to be treated, just as you would in other areas of life. Oh, and don’t fall out with people if you can help it, because it really can be a very small world.

Saying no feels great …
I’m a firm believer in the power of saying no. If a project isn’t right for me, or I simply can’t fit it in, I no longer have qualms about turning it down. In the early days, it can feel as if every opportunity is the last one you will get – but the reality is not like that. Chances often come around again, even if in a slightly different guise. And it’s never worth risking not delivering (in terms of deadline or quality) by trying to cram in too much work. Saying no (politely, constructively, and with a referral to a suitable colleague if appropriate) is one way you can remind yourself that you are in control of your business. And that feels good!

But, saying yes is even better
Having described how wonderful saying no is, I should counter that by stating that saying yes to a brilliant new project – for a new client, for a favourite old client, in a new area, on a subject that especially excites me – is one of the best work-related feelings in the world. It’s always a rush, and it makes the harder aspects of freelancing totally worth it.

The snowball effect is actually a thing
I used to wake up in a cold sweat at two in the morning quite regularly, wondering when the work would run out. This persisted for the first few years of freelancing, but eventually it did stop happening. Perhaps because I got too tired … or perhaps because there really is an element of things becoming self-sustaining, to some extent, over time. I used to panic when a favourite contact left a publisher … until I realised that it often led to new work when they sought me out again from their next destination. And often their old colleagues would continue to use me, too. If you do a good job, word will spread, and word of mouth is a highly effective marketing tool.

But, that doesn’t mean you can completely relax
Having said that, it’s not enough to rely only on word of mouth, or passively wait for people to come to you, to keep the work coming in. You need to keep yourself ‘out there’ through a range of marketing efforts. These don’t all have to be what you might think of as ‘marketing’, though. It’s easy to casually network with colleagues on a daily basis online, especially via membership of the SfEP, for example, or another professional association. It’s not particularly time-consuming to keep yourself discoverable online once you start. These should be things you do almost without thinking most days – with the added bonus that they help to provide variety, camaraderie and even humour in the context of a working day spent mostly editing.

You will embrace the unpredictability
It can seem terrifying to think that you don’t know what you will be working on in six months’ time, or a year’s time … but the flip side of this is that as well as alarming, it’s also liberating. Some tasks you do as a freelance editor will be mundane – but taken as whole, the trajectory of a freelance editing career doesn’t have to be the slightest bit boring. There are all kinds of opportunities within editing itself, and that’s before you begin to consider branching out into writing, speaking, training, mentoring … the only limits are the ones you impose on yourself, once you’re up and running.

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Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She’s still finding out how freelancing works.