- Achieving a steady stream of work can take a long time. Because I came from a publishing background and had a decade’s worth of contacts, I hit the ground running. However, it still took me several years to build up a decent bank of repeat clients. How many do you need? Well, that can depend on the sector you work in, the size of the jobs you usually undertake and how much you need to earn from freelancing. For me the tipping point came when I didn’t panic if one (or even two) of my work streams dried up at any time, because I had enough others to compensate.
- Don’t judge yourself by other people’s standards. Only you know what you feel comfortable with when it comes to the amount of future work you have booked in. I’m happy when I have about two months’-worth of work lined up, with a bit of room to fit in last-minute, interesting and/or well-paid jobs. I know other editors who are booked up six months to a year in advance; I don’t worry about this, because most of my clients work with shorter lead times than that, and I actually prefer not knowing exactly what I am going to be doing too far in advance. But that’s purely my preference.
- Don’t bank on any lead until you actually start doing the job. It’s easy to feel more relaxed when sounding out prospects, or participating in early negotiations, if you are not already seeing a potential job as the way to pay a particular bill. The more chilled out you appear at this stage, the more likely you are to secure good work, on terms that you’re happy with, with a positive professional relationship with the client. I’m not saying you shouldn’t play hardball when it comes to discussions about money – because I think you should – but it doesn’t inspire confidence if the client senses that you need them more than they need you.
- Don’t come across as desperate or self-deprecating. This is related to the previous point. It’s a good thing to cold-email prospective clients offering your services. It helps if you try to show them what you can do for – or with – them, rather than expecting them to give something to you. But no matter how much you need the work, don’t let on. It will not make you attractive to the client, and it may devalue your services.
- Give as well as take. Don’t just expect referrals and recommendations to happen to you. Recommend and refer your colleagues. I’m not particularly superstitious, but I do like to believe in karma. Last week I recommended two colleagues to a longstanding client, and within half an hour I had an email from someone totally different offering me work on the basis of another editor’s recommendation. Coincidence? Probably, but it’s more romantic to think otherwise! Also, don’t approach every work-related gathering with a specific goal in mind in terms of drumming up business. Go along with the intention of meeting like-minded professionals, hearing an interesting story, picking up a work tip or two … and if you happen to have a conversation that leads to concrete work six months or even five years down the line, that’s great. Often when it comes to work leads, it’s all about the slow burn.
- Say thank you for jobs you have enjoyed, and say what you enjoyed about them. When I send a client my invoice at the end of a job, I always thank them for the work. If I especially enjoyed it and want more of the same, I tell them exactly what I liked. As with all the other points, this doesn’t guarantee work, or work of a particular nature, but it does make it a heck of a lot more likely. You have to get into the habit of positively putting yourself forward for things you want to do.
- If you’re losing sleep wondering where the next jobs will come from, you need to work harder at marketing. Plenty of others (for example Louise Harnby, of course!) write far better than I do on marketing. I have my own methods, which at this point in my career tend to be about keeping myself out there, rather than bursting on to the scene, though I would need to adapt this approach to break into a new area or establish a different client base. Take opportunities to remind people that you exist. (Changed name for any reason? Brilliant. Just returned to work after a break? Go for it.) You want them to think of you when they’re casting around for a top-notch editor for that big, juicy job … on the other hand, don’t overdo it – you don’t want to be labelled a stalker. A light touch, as in all things editorial, can be extremely useful.
- Cultivate plenty of leads … and then forget about them. Easier said than done, I know, but a watched pot never boils. There must be some kind of official law of freelance editing which states that most work will come to you when you’re up to your eyes in something else. And if the thought of that doesn’t set your heart racing in a good way, perhaps this isn’t the line of work for you …
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She only watches the pot when she’s really desperate for a coffee.