An open letter to new proofreaders (in fact, editors of all descriptions) ...
Dear newbie proofreader,
I’ve told you a lie – I don’t hate the term “freelance proofreader”. “I’m freelance”, “I went freelance in …”, and “since I’ve been freelancing” are phrases I trot out all the time to explain the way I organize my work life.
I'll be frank with you, though – I do sometimes worry that the term “freelance” doesn’t quite cut the mustard.
If I’d spent 15 years working as an electrician for an electrical installations company and then decided to go it alone, I’d never have described myself as a "freelance electrician". I’d have told people that I was now running my own electrical business.
Does “freelancer” really reflect the level of business acumen required to do my job? And it’s not just my ability to make sound judgements and take the right decisions. It’s bigger than that – it’s that whole sense of business-cultural embeddedness that’s at stake. If I don’t think of myself as a business owner, then am I in danger of not acting like one? And if I don’t act like one, why would anyone else think to treat me as one?
Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs does not consider me a “freelancer”. Rather, I’m a sole trader. I’m the owner of a business that employs exactly one person.
I carry out tax self-assessment on an annual basis just as if I was that business-owning electrician I mentioned above.
Just like the electrician, I’m hired by a number of different clients to carry out professional services.
Just like the electrician, I set my own rates (though perhaps unlike our electrician I may agree to – or decline – an offered fee).
Just like the electrician, it’s up to me to decide whether I want to accept a client’s offer of work or decline it.
Just like the electrician, I work the hours I choose to work and take holiday leave when I decide to.
And just like the electrician, the only person who can fire me is, well, me.
Does a freelancer work in a different way to that of a business owner? This one doesn’t. So what’s the problem with referring to myself as “freelance”? I don’t think there is one as long as I’m clear in my mind about what needs to be done – and being a business owner is more than just a being a proofreader (or an electrician).
I could say more but I have a work deadline to meet and a child who's complaining of a sore throat, so there isn’t time right now. I hope this gets you thinking, anyway.
So, dear newbie, if in your own head the term “freelance” doesn’t conjure up an image of these many hats, then I’d advise you instead to start thinking of yourself as a business owner first and foremost.
To do otherwise may leave you ill-prepared for the myriad functions that you’ll need to perform (and that you may have little experience of) when you start out.
You'll be the luckiest editorial freelancer in the world if the work just lands in your lap. It's far more likely that you'll have to work very hard to get yourself established.
Become “freelance” by all means, but do your business planning just like any other new business owner.
With best wishes,
Louise Harnby | Fiction Editor & Proofreader
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Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with crime, mystery, suspense and thriller writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a member of ACES, a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and co-hosts The Editing Podcast.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Fiction Editor & Proofreader, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, connect via Facebook and LinkedIn, and check out her books and courses.
24/7/2012 03:54:40 pm
Brilliant, Louise! I'm adding a link for this post to the "Basics" page of the Copyeditors' Knowledge Base right now and will be sharing the link all over the place.
24/7/2012 04:06:51 pm
Thanks, as always, Kathy. My editorial colleague Julia Sandford-Cooke (WordFire) and I talked (and agreed) about this briefly at our recent Norfolk SfEP group meeting. We didn't have much time to go into it there, so this was my way of expanding what would, I'm sure, have been a really interesting discussion.
24/7/2012 04:11:20 pm
A great post that makes a lot of sense. I go for "self-employed" when I need to explain it in those kinds of term, so I make it clear that I'm not employed by one company, but I also often say I run my own business ... because I do!
24/7/2012 04:18:35 pm
Thanks, Liz. I'm with you, completely. Both of your chosen ways of describing our editorial businesses work for me!
24/7/2012 10:03:24 pm
Absolutely brilliant article, Louise! I especially like your comparison to the electrician going it alone, and the list of departments at the end.
25/7/2012 04:17:06 am
Thanks, Eva! It'll work with just about any self-employed business owner, won't it? Accountants, mobile hairdressers, IT consultants, landscape gardeners ...
25/7/2012 03:53:53 am
I don't have a problem with the term - I think it reflects the fact that most of us get work from other businesses rather than from members of the general public (unlike an electrician, for instance). It also does tend to be used mainly for and by people in the field of ‘publishing’ in the widest possible sense, including people such as journalists, and graphics designers, and certainly within that sphere I consider it a widely recognised term that doesn’t need much explanation.
25/7/2012 04:13:58 am
Thanks, Tina. I suspect there may be rather a lot of us who get work from the general public and plenty of electricians who get work from corporates! That's beside the point, though. As you say, the term is perfectly well understood in our circles and I have no problem with it. As you realised, the post was all about driving home the point that new starters need to have more than editorial skills under their belt to make a success of it, not least how to find and sell themselves to potential clients. "Working from home" - yes, another phrase that's fine in some circles but is in danger of instilling the wrong attitude.
25/7/2012 10:59:10 am
What a great reminder of all the hats worn by sole traders.
25/7/2012 01:01:21 pm
Cheers, Mary. Wendy's Toole's comment is also a reminder of two hats I forgot to mention!
25/7/2012 12:19:13 pm
One of the things I love most about being freelance is the variety! In my capacity as professional development director, I have this week purchased new software and booked a couple of training courses. That's instead of going on a summer holiday this year ...
25/7/2012 12:29:44 pm
I'm assuming that you were also wearing your IT Manager's hat when you made the decision on which software package to choose. I forgot to add that to my list of "employees" above. And surely you and I can also add Web Development Executive to our lists (with a little help from Weebly, of course)!
25/7/2012 01:18:33 pm
You know what? I'm adding them to the list, just to make the point!
25/7/2012 09:19:07 pm
Louise, this great post raised a chuckle from me, partly because you've expressed the issue so wittily and partly because you're absolutely spot on (as usual). I love that list of job roles, too ... but didn't you forget 'Chief Motivational Officer'?
30/7/2012 08:19:25 am
Thanks, Katy! You're spot on, too, as usual. I'd say the CMO should probably be joint top of the list because with that we'd not get anything done!
Love this post. I was a freelance editor for years while my children were small: I took whatever work came my way and was happy for it, but I always fully expected to go back to a "real job" some day. Eventually, I did go back to work part-time in an office but after a few years I decided to go back to freelancing. But this time I opened up shop as a sole proprietor (U.S. term) with a business name and a website and business cards. And now I tell everyone that I own my own editing business, and I've taken training courses and been to conferences, and I'm very busy these days. It's amazing how that little bit of change in my own thinking has allowed me to feel so much more professional.
30/7/2012 08:21:24 am
Cheers, Tammy! Your story is such a good example of what I was trying to get a in this post - you reap what you sow.
Great comment, raising some good points, and I agree with you on them. I don't use the term 'work from home' as I find that people then seem to view you as a, sort of, Avon lady/Tupperware sales person and not to be taken seriously. Certainly not in the virtual world we work in at any rate. I tell people I work for myself, I run my own business. After all, I have to pay my mortgage and I have a full office with all the equipment, even if it is on my own property. The moment you tell someone that you are working from home, there is the view that it is not a 'real' job, and that you can just down tools when someone decides to phone you to talk for an hour or two, or appear at the door for coffee. Deadlines don't appear to bother such callers.
30/7/2012 08:25:08 am
Thanks so much, Corinna! Couldn't agree more. It's sometimes hard to make people who don't work in the home understand that the same levels of discipline, commitment and professionalism occur in the home-based work environment, too.
Great post and how true it is! I was just venting about how irritated I get when people don't take me seriously. I recently started noticing that the word "freelance" evokes images of me working at Starbucks part-time, which certainly is not the case! (Although it would be lovely if I had the time.)
30/7/2012 11:05:57 am
I thank you for your article, Louise. Because, like you, I feel I have little time to do much more than I'm doing because I, too, am a [proud] business owner, therefore I appreciate your article because I don't have time to write one myself; your words brilliantly sum up the business of a freelance proofreader/technical copyeditor. Cheers!
While I recognise all the problems mentioned in the article and the comments, I do sometimes feel the reverse side of this, when talk of owning and running a company makes some clients worried that it won't be me doing the work, or that I might be handing the work on to some intern, apprentice, or underling. There are occasions when it is good to make it clear you are a solitary person working completely independently.
31/7/2012 06:56:37 am
Thanks for your comments, Duncan. I absolutely agree with you. Many users of our services want to have that important personal touch with those whom they are entrusting their work to. This article was about making sure freelancers get in the right INNER head space. I know too many people who set up their businesses without having thought about how they are going to get clients, who their competition is, how long it will take to make the business financially viable, what training is required for each sector of the market, and so on. Getting the right attitude internally - thinking of yourself as an editorial business owner - means that you are more likely to plan your venture like any other business person. Saying your a freelance editor, or whatever, is not enough and won't bring work to your door unless you have some ready-made contacts and some experience, which many don't. You have to put in some graft with regards to the business planning and organization, and I think it's best to do this at the beginning. But, yes, the one-to-one, sole trader element is often crucial in our business!
29/9/2016 04:52:30 pm
Duncan, I have also run into that on occasion. Sometimes it is a fine line -- getting across the point that I'm a business but also that my clients are going to get my personal attention. I do most of my jobs myself, but I do hire subs on occasion, usually for certain tasks, like formatting a book manuscript or styling references, and I'm up-front about that. If a client says, I want only you to work on this project, I'm usually fine with that. But if it's a big job on a tight schedule with, say, tons of references, I might explain why it would be a good idea for me to have someone to help with that, but I might have to turn down the job if the client really only wants one freelancer. Most are happy that this will help a complex project to come in on time!
22/8/2012 09:47:02 pm
Excellent post, thanks Louise. I love the 'Contact information' section.
4/9/2013 03:40:09 am
I have been reading your wonderful blog for a few months now as (after rather a long pause) I am planning to refresh/update/continue my training as a proofreader (and ditto indexing). Having been self-employed for 13 years, I identified with this post immediately! The 'Contact Information' at the end made me laugh so much, I knocked my cup of coffee all over the floor! (Contact Info: office cleaner - Christine Todd)
4/9/2013 04:04:19 am
29/9/2016 03:23:22 pm
I usually tell people simply that I'm an editor, as an intro sentence to that getting-to-know-you conversation. Further into the conversation, I usually follow up with "I run my own editorial services business" and talk about the different types of editing I do.
29/9/2016 05:18:51 pm
Great article, Louise! I laughed at your closing.
29/9/2016 06:37:59 pm
Just to be clear, I don't have a problem with the term per se. What I worry about is new entrants to the field who decide to 'go freelance', not realizing that they're going to be responsible for a business. I often tell people I work freelance because the term is understood in our community, but I tell myself and the tax authorities that I'm a business owner! This rather tongue-in-cheek article is more about self-awareness than others' perceptions!
29/9/2016 07:09:45 pm
That's very clear, Louise! It's an excellent article. It's made me think a lot about how I view myself and my business, and how I'll refer to it in future. :)
20/10/2017 10:54:28 am
Great article - thanks for that. Do you think the "freelance " tag lingers if one works primarily from home rather than working onsite? Just wondered.
20/10/2017 06:19:08 pm
Hi, Lorna! I hear it used all over. My article is a little tongue in cheek. I think it matters more what's going on in our own heads. If we think of ourselves as business owners, rather than freelancers, I think we get ourselves in a better business mindset. 'Freelancing' is a term that can lead some (and only some) people to have a set of ideas that can bend towards entitlement (e.g. that company should pay me more; those rates aren't fair; I deserve a better fee; I don't have enough time to do this; X is luckier than me because ...). Whereas business ownership forces us into a mindset that places responsibility on our own shoulders (e.g. I need to find a replacement client; I need to review my rate structure; I'm only going to accept X price; I'm going to find the time to do this; I aspire to be like X so that ...).
29/1/2018 10:13:20 pm
Thanks for the reminder, Louise. I have worked hard to eradicate the term 'freelancer' from my vocabulary and emphasise that I'm running a business. But sometimes I forget. And what I need to do more of is to gently correct people when they say 'Oh, you're a freelancer?' I usually remember, but not always.
29/1/2018 11:41:51 pm
Thanks, Sally! Glad you enjoyed the post! I do sometimes use the term; sometimes it's handy. But, like you, I try to focus on business first when that suits, which is often!
29/10/2020 05:55:21 pm
I really appreciate the list of titles at the end of the piece.
21/3/2021 08:09:13 pm
Great advice as usual! I think of myself as a freelancer but describe myself to others as a business owner. I think that people are more receptive to the latter description, unless they are a freelancer themselves. That's just my experience. Thank you for this article, Louise!
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