Lessons Learned from a Failed Freelance Attempt
Whenever I speak to new freelancers or students about freelance editing as a career, I talk a little about the path I’ve taken. I always acknowledge that editors come to their careers from many paths (see?) and that mine included an early, spectacularly failed stint of full-time freelance. Feedback suggests that talking about that failure is one of the most valuable parts of the conversation.*
For your edification, then, here are the top three lessons I learned from that first failed attempt at full-time freelancing:
1) Broaden your search.
A too-local focus is an unnecessary handicap. It's nice to have local contacts, and I believe in shopping local and supporting neighborhood businesses. But editing is not a career that takes kindly to geographic constraints. This is even more true today than it was umpteen years ago. Back then, I needed to get on the phone and on email to broaden my client search. Today, editors need to get online. And it also doesn't hurt to learn how to work with ESL authors or materials written in one of the other world Englishes (Canadian perhaps?).
2) Narrow your offerings.
A too-broad list of services is a recipe for confusion and inefficiency. "Ummm... yeah, I could probably do that..." is no way to build a career. Just because you're competent or even really good at something doesn't mean you should include it in the services you offer. I can make excellent, gourmet toasted sandwiches, I'm a pretty good travel agent, and I've had success as a tutor. None of those things fall under the umbrella of my freelance editing career. Offering a variety of related editorial services is fine, particularly after you’re established in your field. Dabbling in anything and everything you could possibly do for people is not. It confuses you, it confuses your clients, it wastes time, and it makes you miss valuable career-building opportunities.
3) Work it like a business.
A too-simplistic view of small business and personal finance will be your undoing. You may luck out and discover that a jack-of-all-trades, gourmet-toast-and-tutoring business is a perfect fit for your particular neighborhood. If you don't treat it like a business, however, it will go under. And take you and your credit score with it. Of all the lessons I learned from that first attempt at full-time freelancing, this one seems to be the most universal. If you do nothing else to prepare for a freelance editing career, learn the basic principles of running it like a business.
What lessons have you learned from failures and near-failures? Make sure to include them in the conversation — they’re some of the best lessons we get.
* Rebels that they are, people also like to hear about the parts of my editing career that go against conventional wisdom for freelance editing success. But that’s, perhaps, a topic for a different post.