I’ve reached the conclusion that a sustainable freelance editorial career is less about ‘being a good editor’ than it is about mental resilience and the ability to cope with – even to relish – change. Of course it’s necessary to attain a certain standard of technical expertise, and do all we can to maintain it. But what keeps us going in the long term, across the shifting terrain of a competitive and evolving field, is not that.
In the past year I have been dealing with huge upheaval in my personal life. At times, I’ve felt almost overwhelmed by the scale of the changes I’ve faced, even ready to give up. But there has been little choice but to keep on going, bit by bit, sorting things out, holding steady – and learning to let what will happen, happen, and work with it rather than fight it.
I believe that a lot of this personal resilience has been made possible by the way I have learned to manage my business for the past eleven or so years. As a freelancer, you soon learn not to depend on any single client, source of income, or hoped-for outcome. You learn too not to expect reassurance (but to hoard it like treasure when it does come). You start to understand that while you might be special in some ways, you are also very insignificant. You must compute that not every unanswered email, or lack of repeat commission, is a personal affront. And the strength to keep going – to stay good-humoured, positive, motivated – that mostly has to come from within.
For example, just in the last few days, I sent off a piece of work worth a couple of weeks’ pay. I don’t necessarily expect to hear anything about it again – and, among my clients, that’s normal. It’s also normal for me to receive a note of thanks, or a compliment, but I can’t let myself go to pieces if that doesn’t happen. There is a degree of acceptance required, a certain necessary coolness. A need to let go.
Also within the past month, there was a small misunderstanding over invoicing with a different client, which was soon cleared up. But I now have to be careful not to equate that with the fact that my workstream for that particular client has since been quieter than usual. I have seen this type of thing happen before, and precedent resoundingly tells me that the only correlation between those two things is in my head. Again, I have had to learn to supply the reassurance myself.
All of this is not to say that we are powerless. Learning to live with uncertainty is not the same thing as passivity, or denial of responsibility. Here are some things I do to regain some sense of agency, if not actual control.
One way to find out what’s really going on is to ask. I try not to pester clients, but a brief email to remind that I am here to help if they need me is often enough to end a quiet spell. Sometimes it happens that a contact has moved on, in which case at least I know it was them, not me. I’ll then do what I can to cultivate new contacts instead. If I discover that someone really did have a problem with an aspect of my work (yes, it hurts like hell), at least I can then take steps to remedy that. One thing it’s important to remember in any situation is that what seems important to us is rarely as pressing or devastating for anyone else involved. That doesn’t actually fix things, but it helps to rationalise them.
Deal with problems as they arise
This is related to the previous point. We may not be able to bend all circumstances to our will, but we can find ways around things, or take the heat out of a situation. This is best done when the problem arises, not after weeks of stewing about it. Having said that, sleeping on things almost always helps. Or, if really pushed for time, taking a shower. Some of my best solutions to tricky professional situations have arrived covered in a lather of soap bubbles.
Lead by example
I’m rubbish with animals, which is why I don’t have any pets, but I do know a thing or two about positive reinforcement. This is why I thank clients for their thoughtful and quick responses, and their feedback. I treat clients as I would like to be treated. I answer emails promptly and cheerfully. I make sure any information I give is as clear as possible. I ask straightforward questions. I tell them what I need directly. I don’t waste their time. I keep them updated, and ask them to do the same for me – and very often, they do.
Find a diversion
When circumstances truly are out of my control, I do something else. Work on a different project. Talk to other editor friends (usually online, sometimes in person; the editorial community never ceases to amaze me as a source of support and solidarity). Go for a walk or a run. Have another cup of coffee. Do something with the children. Bake flapjacks.
We just have to accept that we will always need to keep finding new sources of work. That’s stressful on one level, but on another, it is undeniably what keeps things interesting. The major client I began this journey with more than a decade ago, never imagining how I would survive without them? Now I do maybe one job for them every two years. If there’s one thing in life that is certain, it’s that all things will pass. That most nightmarish situation? In a week, or a month, definitely in a year – I know it will be nothing. It will be a mere footnote; a horror story I retell with a grim smile over a cappuccino at my local group meeting.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and freelance since 2008. She specialises in books on architecture and art, as well as a range of other subjects. When not editing she likes walking along cliff tops, writing or cooking.