Essentials of Freelance Work: Writing and Editing

By Nada Sneige Fuleihan on Friday, December 1, 2017
Learn how to build your freelance editing business from experienced freelance editors.

As a new year approaches, don’t forget to take stock of your writing and editing aspirations. This guest blog post is courtesy of freelance writer, translator, and educator Nada Sneige Fuleihan. Below she shares useful information on the essentials of freelance work.

For all those among us who are taking their first steps in the freelance world as editors, writers, or any other potential combinations of the two, you are encouraged to keep reading for some advice and tips on how to set up or improve your business.

We all face the same challenges and obstacles from finding the right place to work, to managing our time, to finding clients. Although freelancing offers flexibility in work schedules, it can be solitary and isolating work. A newcomer to the freelancing world quickly realizes that the task can be daunting. With a good office set up, discipline, and access to editing and writing networks, the road ahead will seem friendlier and the potholes along the way less threatening.

Organizations such as Chicago Women in Publishing are a great space to share and learn about opportunities or about the common issues that we all face. Reading blog posts, participating in the many planned educational events, or enrolling in the Mentorship Program (fill out our application here) are essential benefits of CWIP membership.

In her blog post on Management Tips for Freelancing, Mary Nolan, owner of  Grammar Panda, shared some practical tips about managing time, creating schedules, and figuring out your productivity patterns in place and time.

There are many time tracking and analysis apps out there designed specifically for freelancers to study your work patterns and peak efficient hours that can also help with invoicing. For a sampler, check out "8 Great Time-Tracking Apps for Freelancers," from Entrepreneur or "The Best Time-Tracking Apps for Freelancers and Teams." If you’re having difficulty staying on task, time management methods such as the Pomodoro Technique can help you increase your focus and concentration time incrementally not just for work but in other life aspects.

Nothing compares, however, to getting advice directly from those who walked the path before us. On Tuesday, September 26, 2017, the University of Chicago Graham School and CWIP co-hosted a freelancing editing panel, which was wonderfully moderated by CWIP board member, Marian Manghoubi, and featured three outstanding women in the field: Kelli Christiansen, Donna Polydoros, and Erin Wright.

For two hours, the panelists delighted the audience by telling their own editing experiences and processes guided by Marian Manghoubi’s expertly crafted questions. These experts offered many valuable tips and pieces of advice to deal with the ins and outs of freelancing.

Starting as a Freelancer—Build on Your Experience.

Most editors starting on their own have previous experience editing in publishing houses or other types of organizations. Many continue working on these skills through professional development programs such as the University of Chicago Graham School’s Editing Certificate Program.

The three panelists at the Freelancing event: Christiansen, Polydoros, and Wright all started out in jobs that required skills in writing as a journalist, as a technical writer, or in coordinating freelance editors' work. During their in-house employment, or as students of writing in college, they built on opportunities to edit for projects and made their first steps into establishing their clients.

No matter what your experience, it is essential to follow the appropriate style guide for the trade that you are working for. The Chicago Manual of Style is the most extensively used guide for manuscript and journal publishing. However, different disciplines follow established styles guides for their specialties such as the Modern Language Association (MLA) for humanities, the American Psychological Association (APA) for psychology and social science, the American Medical Association (AMA) for medicine. Many publishers, however, have specific in-house style guides which you would need to follow when working for them.

Challenges and Benefits—Flexibility vs. Unpredictability

Flexibility is no doubt one of the top sought after benefits when choosing to freelance but with it comes the potential for fluctuations in the availability of work and income.

The panelists on September 26, echoed the motivations of many freelancers while explaining the reasons that drew them into freelancing, namely being their own boss and having the freedom to choose their clients and projects. However, no world is perfect.

Erin Wright cautioned that the financial and emotional lows are sometimes realities to contend with. To counter these rollercoaster periods in activity, Donna Polydoros shared her strategy of savvy budgeting and building a nest egg to ride out the inevitable dry spells. Kelli Christiansen and Erin Wright spoke of the importance of keeping personal writing projects on the side to reach for in these periods such as short stories or other genres to remain focused on writing and editing. “Every editor is a secret writer,” said Kelli Christiansen.

Finding Clients—Marketing

Continuous marketing is vital as clients are the source of your income. Communication tools such as emails, newsletters, and social media are useful not just to attract attention and circulation to your web pages and services but also to announce availabilities when work is slow.

Frequently, explained Donna Polydoros, house editors go through crunch times during which they are looking for freelancers to meet deadlines on big projects. Announcements of availability in your schedule can turn an employer’s need into an opportunity for you to secure work and potentially repeat clients. Once a company establishes a relationship with an editor, they will continue to request you if they are pleased with the work.

Referrals—No Weak Connections.

Some publishing websites give interested freelancers the option of uploading their résumés. These are read carefully when an editing team is looking for help during crunch times. The organizations that can lead to possible connections are numerous. Some local examples are the Independent Writers of Chicago (IWOC), the Chicago Writers Association (CWA), and others more on the national scale such as the Society for Technical Communication or Publishers Marketplace.

Kelli Christiansen pointed out that LinkedIn is also a valuable tool. Most importantly, she emphasized, is to keep in mind that networking need not be restricted to the editing and publishing fields, as all other fields of business and industry have newsletters, and publications, and may be looking for expertise in writing or editing, “there are no weak connections.” The simplest form of networking, word of mouth, remains quite powerful and efficient especially when first starting out, explained Erin Wright, “even the dentist or the hairstylist may be a connection that passes your information to a potential client." Polydoros concurred, "you never know where the next client is going to come from so it is important not ignore any communication even if it does not seem related to your work.”

Client Management—Everyone Makes Mistakes.

Every freelancer has had to deal with a difficult client or a tricky situation. Fortunately, every mistake or negative experience offers a lesson to learn.

The advice from the panelists was clear on setting boundaries for work hours. Setting a strict schedule for business hours is essential to good client relationships and needs to be protected dearly. However, depending on the project, sometimes flexibility may be appropriate, explained Christiansen, provided the expectations are clear from the beginning of the project.

These clarifications are usually set before the start of a project in detailed email communications which go through the goals as well as the expectations of the client and the editor from each other. Erin Wright favors phone conversations before starting a project to explore if she is a good fit for it. She sometimes helps the client find another person that may be a better match. Usually, people are grateful for the honest opinion and help. If problems arise, however, such as a client who demands excessive time on the phone, or requests that you write unprofessional content which may hurt your reputation, it is best to deal with any issues immediately by talking to the client. Unfortunately, sometimes if the situation cannot be solved it is necessary to end a relationship.

Rates—Know Your Worth.

The golden rule of how much to charge is to know what you are worth. The key is to figure out what you want to earn with the time you want to dedicate to editing. Once you determine what your target earnings are per year, you can calculate what that would equal per hour.

These choices are very personal. Christiansen advises, however, to never accept less than what you decided to charge, “you know your own worth and don’t accept anything less.”  There are different ways to use the hourly rate to quote fees as the panelists demonstrated by sharing their approaches.

Having determined an hourly rate, Christiansen uses it to calculate a flat fee for projects by estimating the time it would take to get them done. She makes sure to keep a clause in the contract for adjustments in case the project takes longer than planned. Erin Wright’s system is similar as she uses the EFA editorial rate chart to arrive at a flat fee based on word count.  She points out that it is good practice to ask new clients for 50% of the project’s cost up front as a non-refundable payment. Polydoros also uses her desired hourly rate to arrive at a flat fee per project. She also developed a price grid for shorter projects such as résumés, newsletters, etc.

No matter what pricing method you prefer, the panelists unanimously agreed that contracts are essential for good business practice especially for larger projects. Contracts should detail stages of payments as well as termination fees in case a project is aborted. It is better to discuss pricing before starting and to be mindful that corporate clients with payroll departments issue checks in cycles, which may delay payment.

Taxes—Know Your Tax Bracket.

The question is whether to hire an accountant or take the plunge and do your own taxes. The key is to know your tax bracket so you can set aside the portion of your income that corresponds to the percentage you owe.

Erin Wright prefers to file her taxes by herself. She deducts the amount she owes out of each paycheck and by the end of the year, she has the right amount saved up. Keeping your receipts organized for all work expenses and supplies is helpful to itemize deductions.

There is also the option of deductions for using a section of your home for business which is a good thing to consult about with an accountant, remarked Christiansen who humored that since her expertise is words, she would rather spend her time on that and leave the numbers to her accountant.

Q&A—Advice from the Panel:

Do Your Own Thing.

You don’t have to listen to every piece of business advice you hear, said Erin Wright. If you don’t like a specific social media tool, you don’t have to force yourself to use it. Reach out to your clients and network in your style.


As you work and take on more jobs, you will find that you like certain areas more than others, or that you are especially good at specific aspects of writing and editing. Eventually, you end up editing and writing what you are good at, which is usually what you read the most.

Editing Samples.

Request a few chapters of a book before deciding to take the job. It is not, however, necessary to provide the client with an editing sample unless they request it. Sometimes editing a short passage is helpful to get a feel for the project’s feasibility.

Time Budgeting.

With experience, it becomes easier to gauge the time needed for different projects. Using the tracking apps mentioned above is a good practice to know your work style.   It is also good to identify your golden time of productivity. No need to work during periods when you are going to be slow.

In conclusion, freelancing is an ideal opportunity to work at our own pace. With a good marketing plan, organization, and discipline you should be well on your way to setting up a productive practice. Listening to the experiences of established editors and having resources such as CWIP facilitate work and offer opportunities helps not just for networking but also for forging collegial and enduring friendships.

For more information on the panelists:
Marian Manghoubi:
Kelli Christiansen:
Donna Polydoros:
Erin Wright:

Nada Sneige Fuleihan has an MA in History and is currently a student in the Graham School Certificate in Editing Program. She has worked many years as a French Language teacher and French School director. She is fluent in English, French, and Arabic and is presently working on a fiction novel which was selected for a grant in 2016 by the City of Chicago Cultural and Arts programs. She can be contacted at

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