Tips for Surviving and Thriving as a Freelancer

Date: Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Forum speakers: Jon Byous, John Dibs, Hilary Powers, Elissa Rabellino, and Sherri Schultz (short profiles of each panelist are at the end of the summary)
Forum organizer: Geneviève Duboscq
Forum date: February 24, 2010
Summary notes: Christopher Disman

Freelancers usually work alone. But wherever we work, most freelancers and contractors face similar challenges: finding new clients, securing repeat business, promoting our services, managing our time, husbanding our resources through feast-and-famine work cycles, achieving a healthy work-life balance, and preparing for our futures.

The five freelancers in this BAEF forum panel spoke to these topics from their own experiences. Each audience member could sift through the panelists' stories and advice for details that sounded especially relevant to her or his own career.

Starting a Freelance Career

The panelists began by describing how they landed their first editing gigs and found their first clients. Panelists' individual editing experience ranged from eleven to over thirty years. Some began freelance editing or contract writing with little applicable experience, while others branched out into them after proofreading or working in advertising or telecommunications.

Elissa Rabellino has copyedited fiction and nonfiction, and has been a production editor for projects including books, Web sites, and PR materials. She found her first freelancing gig through someone she knew at a full-time job. Sherri Schultz has been a freelance copyeditor for eighteen years. She found her first editing job at a publishing house through a friend's letter of recommendation. Patience and persistence led to her first project, and then to a full-time job at a publishing house.

John Dibs learned indexing skills via correspondence course. Living in Europe, he parlayed his knowledge of English into work on patent applications in Finnish and German, going on to find and create regular gigs with his fellow employees at a large Bay Area company. Jon Byous began copywriting after working in ad agencies after college. He began freelance copywriting for high-tech Fortune 500 companies in 1995.

Like Jon, Hilary Powers attributes her ability to find clients to luck and persistence. Hilary has been a freelance copyeditor and developmental editor since 1994. She wanted to work from home, and began editing "utterly stone cold" after reading one book on editing techniques. She describes the many editing tests she took at publishing houses as "disgusting, but good practice" for her editing career.


Hilary gave up hourly rates for her editing work in favor of a flat rate for each text. The flat rate was a spur to her learning to edit quickly—enabling her to complete one project and move on to new earnings with the next project. She renegotiates her rate if a client delivers a manuscript that requires more editing work than a preliminary sample text had required. In these cases, she explains to clients what a light edit will look like at her original rate, and what she could deliver with a more thorough edit at a larger fee than she'd originally negotiated.

Elissa has the opposite approach from Hilary's: she prefers hourly to flat rates since clients' preliminary sample texts can need much less work than their full manuscripts. John indexes works on a per-page basis. He regrets one time when he lowered his rate to get work with a publisher he particularly wanted to work with, since they locked in this rate for the work they asked him to do after he'd finished that first job.

Jon has had bad experiences with needy "hand-holder" clients, whom he charges an hourly rate. Jon charges flat rates on other writing projects. Once, with a per-project rate, a client paid him $200 per word for a short ad. Jon sees that the high-tech industry now places less value on copywriting (i.e., pays less for it) than in the past, and he has adjusted his rates accordingly.

Hilary noted a "serious barrier" between having had your first job and having no experience at all. She recommends taking whatever rate you can get for your first job, and having faith that it will become increasingly rare that you'll have to accept an unsatisfactory rate for your later work.

Like Jon, Sherri suggests trial periods with clients so they can get a chance to see her work. Early in her career, she accepted the rates that publishers named for the books, periodicals, and other materials she edited and proofed. Now she names her own rates.

Repeat Clients

Elissa sees diversification as the key to building a base of repeat clients. She describes her own client base as "a mile wide and an inch deep." A freelancer's clients may all be very different from one another, but the freelancer's good work is the only factor they really need to have in common.

Elissa recommends working on a broad range of subjects and working in different media: this breadth can provide you a safety net at times when it's difficult to find freelance gigs. John agreed that it's dangerous to get stuck in ruts with one program or skill, or to limit yourself to one set of professional contacts. Copywriters and editors often find work by connecting an author with an audience. A related point is that it's beneficial for freelancers to stay connected with societal trends and stay in the habit of communicating regularly with people around us.

Jon said, "Being nice works"—agreeing with Elissa's advice to listen carefully to clients, and show them that their projects are very important to us. It's good business to be trustworthy and make clients' needs a priority. And John described "karma" as being important for his finding and creating gigs within the large company where he works. Having a reputation as a good team player can help a freelancer hear about new projects or pitch them successfully.

Jon advised strategic flexibility on the price a freelancer offers important clients. Hilary counterbalanced the advice by offering the phrase, "I can't do justice to that one." This is her response to projects she doesn't want to undertake—a diplomatic way to say no to valued clients.

Hilary sends notices to clients when she goes on vacation to say that she won't be available for their projects or correspondence, and doesn't want them to think she's ignoring them. By the day she's announced her vacation will end, she finds that clients have often responded with work offers.

Jon looks ahead and does outreach during fallow periods, telling clients he's available and checking whether they have any projects for him. In flood times when there's too much work, Jon reminds himself that even a seventy-nine-hour workweek does end eventually. Once it's over, a check will be on its way, and he'll have retained his status as a freelancer.

Time Management and Financial Planning

Elissa began freelancing after a full-time job had ended. She discovered that being your own boss requires focus, and that motivation can sometimes be hard to find. Nevertheless, she prefers these challenges to full-time work and finds freelancing much more congenial.

Sherri sees freelancing as offering a form of job security that may be overlooked: freelancers with a diversified client base and skill set have a variety of places to turn for work. Entrepreneurial variety can amount to job security as well as independence.

Geneviève asked whether anyone saw freelance writing or editing as changing one boss for eight client/bosses, all demanding high-quality copy. Rather than as bosses, Hilary sees her clients as customers. It's hard to say "I couldn't do justice to that" to your boss, but freelance status enables you to retain that statement in your repertoire of professional responses.

Hilary and Elissa agreed on the importance of building up a financial nest egg against clients who take sixty days to pay a fee. Jon recommended that we find financial accountants and advisors who'll set long-term goals with us, and help us weather lean times.

Elissa and Hillary have sites to sell other products aside from their editing work and bring in additional income. Especially for freelancers just starting out, Elissa recommended gathering testimonials. She sees many editors as being shy about our self-promotion, and encouraged us to get over it.

John keeps a portfolio of his copywriting work, and sees the testimonials that he gives others as also being good marketing for himself. Hilary suggested that we write endorsements for former managers or supervisors, and ask if they'll return the favor. An audience member asked the panel how to ask for recommendations, either to accompany a résumé or for a site like LinkedIn. Many people favored writing out suggested text for recommendations ourselves—saving recommenders time, and inviting them to modify the text as they see fit.


However grim the current economic downturn is, the Web has made it easier than ever to find potential clients and get in touch with them. After having weathered five boom-bust cycles in the high-tech world, Jon sees no correlation between his fifteen years of marketing efforts and the volume of technical copywriting business he's had. His first career marketing was through pamphlets; by 2000, he moved on to e-mail; and since 2005, he's focused more on social media.

An example is Jon's requesting introductions to potential clients through shared contacts on LinkedIn. He affirms that a professional network really can grow with persistence. As research, he studies the Web sites of his clients and their competitors. Their marketing copy helps shape his copywriting.

John does another kind of marketing within his own large company to find and pitch technical writing projects. He estimates that he spends ten percent of his time on project proposals. Years ago in Europe, he went through the phone book to find publishers he might work with, and in the U.S. he did publisher searches for the regions he lived in. He cold-called these publishing houses, and found work.

Elissa keeps a file of clippings for potential editing leads. If she finds a company interesting, she finds out whether it has a publishing division. Sherri has a "one-a-day" goal for her marketing when she's looking for editing and proofing clients. Each day she goes to one meeting, reaches out to one person on LinkedIn, or makes one phone call so that she'll feel a continual sense of incremental marketing progress. Since freelancers don't have scheduled performance reviews, she recommended that we articulate professional goals for ourselves and then act on them.

To find clients, Hilary suggested adding a professional signature block to every e-mail we send. An e-mail signature is a place we can advertise our fields of expertise and provide our contact information.

Elissa encouraged people not to be shy. If you remember people you barely knew once, look them up on LinkedIn, and offer to connect, you may find that they're happy to hear from you. She also recommends investing in professionally designed Web sites and business cards. Unknown people can view your site, and you can always have a card on you to give to the people you meet.

An audience member asked whether it's best to market yourself as a generalist or a specialist. John replied that it's possible to do both: you can list specialized skills or interests alongside more general skills. Jon recommended that we tailor the ways we present our skills to each client we approach, and Sherri recommended looking for specialties at particular publishing houses that fit your own background. On the other hand, proofreading is not Hilary's interest or forté. She won't include it in a description of her services.


Comparing notes with other freelance writers and editors is a good way to gain perspective during difficult economic times. In our careers, most freelancers are likely both to grapple with unexpected challenges and to stumble onto unexpected opportunities.

Learning about other freelancers' experiences and actions can be an excellent way to build up a vocabulary of responses for your varying professional situations—whether you're at the challenging start of your own career, or find yourself in changing circumstances.

Also, because many freelance editors and writers work alone, networking with fellow freelancers at BAEF can be a great way to find common ground, extend your professional network, and develop strategies to thrive in your own freelance career.


Copywriter Jon Byous works for Fortune 500 companies including Sun Microsystems and Cisco Systems. With twenty-eight years of experience and four boom-bust cycles behind him, Jon is a master at honing words for maximum impact.

John Dibs works as a senior technical writer on staff at Calix, Inc., in Petaluma and has worked as a freelance book indexer since 1995. He is a past president of the North Bay chapter of STC and serves as an ordained deacon at St. Timothy Eastern Orthodox Church in Fairfield.

Editor Hilary Powers is on her fourth career after government analysis, internal and EDP audit, and nonprofit management. She specializes in helping authors sound their best and enjoy the edit process. She's also the author of Making Word Work for You.

Elissa Rabellino is a freelance editor with more than twenty-five years of experience in copyediting, proofreading, and production editing for books, newspapers, magazines, Web sites, government agencies, corporate marketing, and PR departments. She's worked for the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, CNET, and Macworld, among others.

Sherri Schultz has earned her living through freelance copyediting and proofreading since 1992. Most of her new clients come as referrals from existing clients or other editors. She primarily edits books but also proofreads for the Venables Bell ad agency, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and individual designers and consultants.

Panel organizer Geneviève Duboscq has worked as an editor for publishing houses, government agencies, educational institutions, and high-tech companies, moving from freelance jobs to staff positions and back again.

Click here for meeting handout with various resources.


Summary writer Christopher Disman is a freelance editor in San Francisco. He has been a developmental editor or copyeditor for scholarly and magazine articles, biographical essays, grant proposals, touring maps, marketing copy, blog posts, newsletters, Web sites, résumés, organizational correspondence, business reports and proposals, and books.



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