Skip navigation
Career Advice

The precarious world of freelance editing, post-PhD

Professional editing is a lifelong learning journey.


As tenure-track positions dwindle, newly minted PhDs are increasingly turning to freelance editing as a career path. But is it a truly viable option? I have been freelance editing, with a specialization in academic editing, for several years now. Out of this experience has come a wealth of practical knowledge that was gained slowly and sometimes painfully — client by client, contract by contract. Make no mistake about it: entering the precarious world of freelancing is not for the faint of heart. But if you think you’d love the labour and lifestyle, there are certain concrete steps you can take to help ensure success.

If you are a PhD candidate giving serious thought to professional editing as a career path, you need to search for and seize those opportunities open to doctoral candidates in your department, institution, or field. Make your intentions known to faculty, who may well employ your services for their next project or pass on your name to inquiring colleagues. Ask about work or volunteer opportunities with an academic journal that runs out of your department or faculty, or is well-respected in your field. Consider organizing a graduate conference in your area of specialization, and if the papers deserve to see publication, come on board as an editor. Experiences like these will allow you to hone your editing chops while testing the waters to see if you like the work.

If you do, know that there are loads of resources, training and networking opportunities available outside academia. Membership in the Editors’ Association of Canada, a non-profit organization that promotes professional editing, can offer access to all three. The association provides career development opportunities such as annual conferences, online training seminars, and professional certification. But for newer editors, perhaps the biggest perk of membership is a personalized listing with the online directory of members, a searchable tool that connects clients and editors. It may well bring you your first contract.

It’s a no-brainer that your reputation is on the line with every project. Most freelance editors will tell you that the bulk of their work comes from repeat clients or referrals. If you aren’t a meticulous and punctual editor who shows basic human consideration, it’s unlikely that you’ll see either. Of course, the opposite is also true. If you hold up your end of the contract, chances are your clients will reward you with glowing testimonials and tantalizing offers of more work.

The contract is indispensable. Whatever you do (or don’t do), make sure you use one. It’s a simple means of clarifying the terms and conditions of the editing agreement, and protecting both parties from potential misunderstandings or wrongdoings. Once completed, it’s legally binding. Editors Canada offers a template, but you could also develop your own.

Ideally the contract is only drawn up after you’ve seen a sample of your client’s work and offered an estimate of the project. Most editors provide a quote on the basis of three essential pieces of information: length of the project, expected date of return, and type and level of editing required.

If you aren’t familiar with the types of editing — if, say, you don’t know your copy editing from your proofreading — you have your work cut out for you. At the very least, familiarize yourself with some of the foundational texts in the field of professional editing. Better yet, consider studying towards certification as a professional editor, whether through the national association or the many colleges and universities across the country that offer programs in professional editing.

Once you’re confident in your skillset and you’ve acquired a handful of testimonials, it’s time to get into the advertising game. As a freelancer you will need to learn to design your own website, purchase a domain name, and update content. You’ll also need to learn the basics of running your own business, such as applying for a GST/HST number once your income has hit the $30,000 mark — which will likely take a few years to reach, and then a few more years to double. All of it adds up to a lot of extra work, at least in the early days, but clients will gradually come.

Sometimes, however, you will need to go to them. This may mean approaching university presses and trade publishers, among others, to sell your editorial services, polished resumé and cover letter in hand. It may also mean letting the people in your community — whether it be the staff at a non-profit where you volunteer, your neighbour across the street, or the members of your local writers’ group — know that professional editing is what you do for a living. You might be surprised where your contacts lead you.

If academic editing is your specialization, as it is for most PhDs, know your ethical boundaries and respect them. The editing of theses and dissertations, if agreed upon by supervisors and committee members, can provide a tremendous service; simply ensure that ethical guidelines are clearly established and followed by all parties.

All of this is to say that professional editing is a lifelong learning journey. There is no doubt in my mind that it is the best kind of work there is. As to the question about its financial viability, it all depends on your circumstances. If you can afford to opt for a career that ages slowly, professional editing may be for you.

Julie McGonegal is a freelance editor with a specialization in academic publishing.

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Anita Jenkins / May 3, 2018 at 10:54

    The editors’ association has been called Editors Canada for a few years now.

  2. Laura / September 20, 2018 at 12:59

    Thanks for an informative piece. In addition to freelance editing, anyone interested in this career path should also look into jobs at publishers. I work for an academic publishing company who will consider hiring PhDs or MAs with solid academic background who may not have copyediting experience.

    Second, for freelancers, one should ensure the client has set up a payment system as part of the contract. This is especially relevant if the client is overseas, as international money transfers can be complicated. In addition, check for transfer fees. If they exist, add that to your bill for the client or find different cost-free method.