A day in the life of an editor

So you want to be an editor? Are you ready for the editor’s life? Are you ready to hoist your pen (I mean computer), haul up the manuscript, and brave the waves of prose?

Or maybe you’re already an editor, but you’re in-house and want to try freelance, or vice versa?

Let me tell you how to live a day in the life of an editor, in-house versus freelance.

I should say, first, that I worked for more than 20 years in-house in corporate environments, 18 of that in the same company. Then I left (of my own accord, I’ll have you know, and they were sad to see me go; they remain a client of mine). Now I am a freelance editor, and have been for a few years. (I also edited freelance on the side while working in-house during the day, but that’s not the same thing at all.) On top of all that, I know quite a few other editors, and occasionally I hear from them about how they live their lives. So I’m in a good position to talk about what your day will look like as a professional editor, whether in-house or freelance.

Of course other editors will read this and say “You missed something!” or “That’s not how my day goes!” or “Who do you think you are?” I look forward to seeing their comments about their own experience, and you should read those too.

Right. Let’s go. Here’s the agenda.

  1. How to get out of bed
  2. How to have breakfast
  3. How to dress
  4. How to commute
  5. How to plan your day and week
  6. How to manage your desk
  7. How to decide what work to take on
  8. How to track time, bill, and get paid
  9. How to socialize
  10. How to take a vacation
  11. How to spend non-work time
  12. How to go to bed
  13. How to be an editor

How to get out of bed like an in-house editor

Be awakened (awoken? pls check) by the alarm well before any decent, reasonable person would ever truly want to get up. 
Get up super early, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, because you’re one of those people. Then remember that it’s a work day. Dim those eyes and debush that tail.

How to get out of bed like a freelance editor

Awaken when you damn well feel like it.
Get up with an alarm that is set at a perfectly reasonable time that allows you to get enough sleep even though you go to bed later than when the TV used to play the national anthem.
Wake up when your office-job spouse’s alarm goes off. Depending on your spouse, you may roll over and go back to sleep (if you can), or you may have to get up and face the damn day.

How to have breakfast like an in-house editor

Cram something in your mouth as you head out the door. Maybe grab a muffin or some other hand food on your way to your desk, and/or from the coffee place in your office building mid-morning.

How to have breakfast like a freelance editor

Have coffee or a smoothie or both as you start up your computer. Or toast. Or whatever. Cereal. Steak and eggs. Look, your kitchen is right there. Eat what you want, when you want, subject to price, availability, time, and how you’ll feel about yourself later. Take all morning to eat it while you work. Try not to get crumbs on your keyboard.

How to dress like an in-house editor

You’re going to be going outside, so you have to factor in whatever the weather is. And then you’re going to be in an office, with people dressed “appropriately” for work, and there may even be a dress code. Some corporate dress codes are standard stuff borrowed and reborrowed from other companies’ codes (companies steal other companies’ policies all the time). Others are beds of trace fossils, hardened impressions of some event: a client was in the office and made an offhand remark about someone’s shirt or pants, and the next day an addition to the dress code went around by email; another time, someone wore flip-flops that made a noise as they walked around and, hey presto, next day, new rule. 

But as much as you don’t want to dress too shabbily, be careful not to dress nicer than certain people. I once had a sales guy chide me for dressing better than him when we went to a meeting with a client. And if you always look sharper than the president, hmm, are you being paid too much? And of course if you’re a woman, there are the issues and issues upon issues of how sharp, attractive, etc., or dowdy, sloppy, etc., you can be dressed, in the opinions of people who believe their opinions matter.

How to dress like a freelance editor

I don’t know about anyone else, but I wear a housecoat until I’ve been up for about two hours, when I finally shave and get dressed. I think some freelancers wear approximately nothing at all when working at home, except when they have a video meeting with a client. When you do put on clothes, in general, you can wear whatever you want, subject to what you have in your closet and dresser, and of course considering the weather. I suggest dressing about the same as you would for a university class, as the scope of your activity will be similar.

Got really nice office-smart clothes that no one’s going to see? Hmm… go work in a coffee shop in them? It’s not the same, because your friends aren’t seeing them, but…

How to commute like an in-house editor

Assuming it’s not the Year of the Plague and you’re working from the office, hit the street, where the weather will be variously lovely or disgusting, and either get into your car or get on the bus or subway or streetcar or maybe walk or bike. I mean, you know, commute. Read something if you’re taking transit. Make sure your footwear is appropriate.

How to commute like a freelance editor

Hahahahaha hahahhahaaaaaaaahahahaha “commute” ahhahahahahaHAHAHA

My “commute” is 20 steps.

On the other hand, all the stuff that I used to read on the streetcar, subway, or bus I now read pretty much never. All the time I used to spend on transit I now spend getting enough sleep, as it turns out.

In the afternoons, though, I do head out. I walk to a nearby coffee place – or a farther-away coffee place. There are so many coffee places in Toronto, I don’t go to the same one twice in a week, and for almost a whole year I went to at least one new one every week. But your options may be more limited. (During the Time of Plague, I go for a walk, maybe get a coffee to take out, and walk back home and work there.)

How to plan your day and week like an in-house editor

There are many ways of planning work in a corporate environment, because each unhappy company is unhappy in its own way. (Truly happy companies are all the same: they don’t exist. OK, I’m being a bit tart here; there are companies that are enjoyable to work at. But when it comes to planning your time, there’s always friction.) 

The one sure thing is that you won’t have absolute final say over your time. When I was head of an editorial department, we had a schedule that project managers (and others) could block time on, and that would give them first dibs on half-hour blocks, usually planned at the beginning of the week and often adjusted during the week. It didn’t mean that they got an exact time slot, just that we would hold that much time for them during the day. But stuff always comes up. Always. An inevitable fact of life in a corporate environment is that a few times a month (at least) someone will materialize next to you with their hair on fire. And people higher up the food chain like to set arbitrary but absolute deadlines because they can. It’s a manifestation of their importance.

So you figure that you’re going to spend, say, two hours in a given day on a long-term project, but just as you’re getting good momentum on it someone has a thing that just came through from a client and needs attention. And then someone invites you to a meeting, and meetings are seldom at truly convenient times; more likely they’re in two minutes, or over lunch, or at 4:00 on a Friday.

You can say over and over again “Failure to plan on your part does not constitute a crisis on my part.” But the odds are pretty good that at least some of the time it does. And the worst bit is when you have to stop something right in the middle, and later on you forget to get back to it, or you forget about something you were about to do (e.g., paste some text you just cut from elsewhere in the document) and you move on and leave it undone.

Most of the time, though, it’s not really all that bad. Someone has a thing that needs editing; you ask “When do you need it done by?” and look at your schedule and slot it in. (This is also where you should get good at estimating time required, and good at padding those estimates too, partly in case you’re wrong, partly because there’s always more, and partly because there’s nothing wrong with having a bit of time to do Twitter or whatever.) If their expectation is unreasonable, your response will depend on your working relationship with them. A certain amount of any in-house editor’s job is training co-workers – in what’s a reasonable time expectation, in what kind of editing can and should be done, and so on. Use cookies and squirt bottles. OK, not literally squirt bottles. But literally cookies.

There are other kinds of in-house editing jobs besides corporate environments, of course. If you’re a newspaper copyeditor, for instance, it’s more like being that person at the carnival who has to dodge water balloons or pies in the face. It gets busy and it can be unpleasant, but at the end of the day, it’s the end of the day and you’re done. Until tomorrow.

How to plan your day and week like a freelance editor

I’ll tell you what. If you’re the sort of person who is not good at planning and managing time, if you’re the sort of person who pulled all-nighters cramming for exams and wrote term papers three hours before they were due, you are probably not going to fit well into the freelance life. (You may, however, end up being one of those super annoying client contacts I had when I was in-house.) You need to be able to look at your day, even your week, and see what you need to get done and how many hours it will take and when you’ll do what, and then do that. But if you’re an editor, an important part of your job is improving and maintaining order, so if you’re inclined to be an editor, the odds are not bad that you’re already more reliable than the average person when it comes to scheduling.

I mostly work on books. When I get a new project, I know at the start how long the text is and when the deadline is, and I look at it and estimate how long it will take me. Then I go block out that much time – plus a buffer for being wrong in my estimate – on my calendar. I won’t necessarily work exactly when I have the time blocked out, but I know I need to work that many hours, and I can see how much time I have left for other projects. Every morning, I look at what I have planned for the day, but it’s generally no surprise, since I keep an eye on my calendar a good week ahead so I can be flexible and go with the flow.

What kind of calendar should you use? That’s your choice. I just use Excel; I’ve set up calendar pages. It’s always there, always easily accessed, never requires me to be connected to the internet (if I’m, say, sitting in the park with my computer), never gives my data to someone else, and never lets someone else lose or screw up my schedule. But I know there are many different options, and you may prefer an app. I have no recommendations.

One important part of being a freelance editor is that you really need to know your own mind and its daily ebbs and flows. You need to know what you do best at what time of day. I know, for instance, that I’m not fully awake until about an hour and a half after I get up. When I was commuting, that meant that I was about game-ready when I got to the office. Now that I’m at my “desk” within ten minutes of getting out of bed, I schedule entirely mechanical work for the first hour and a half or so – preparing text for translation, proofreading (maybe), or tidying up bibliographies. After that, I’ll move on to copyediting. As the afternoon ages and my brain reaches its analytical peak, I’ll work on substantive and structural edits. In the evening, for fun, when my brain is more creative, I write (e.g., stuff like this that you’re reading right now, which I’m typing at 10:20 pm). 

Not everyone does multiple kinds of editing, of course. And your mind probably has different phases through the day than mine. You may even be great with working all day on one project, whereas I get pretty snaky after more than two hours on the same thing.

How to manage your desk like an in-house editor

If you are working in an office for a company, unless they do one of those “hotelling” or whatever forms of abuse, you have a desk. A desk! It is your desk, your own desk, your special place where you can set up your comfort zone (subject to company rules), although of course you could always come in one day and be told you’re moving to another location. 

But that doesn’t happen too often. I managed to go about ten years with my desk in the same spot. I had it surrounded by plants that got larger and larger and forced people to approach me via specific angles. I had books (with stickers on them with my name, so it was clear what was mine and what was the company’s). I had piles of paper that, at the bottoms, were getting to be aged like a drinking-ready mid-range Bordeaux. I had a cabinet that had important files in the bottom drawer, cookies as well as cookies and some cookies – plus cookies – in the next drawer, various mugs, plates, and flatware farther up, and I can’t even remember what-all else. I even had a tray of six shotglasses that I would bring out on Friday at about 3:30 to share libations with team members (ssshhh! don’t tell upper management! I mean, they probably know but it’s important that everyone pretend they don’t).

If and when you leave, it will likely require one banker’s box for every two years you’ve been there to remove all your personal effects. I had to rent a car to take all my stuff home. Most of the books are still piled behind the chair I’m sitting in as I type this.

Your computer will be provided. You will have to comply with security and privacy and file management regulations. Every so often they will replace your computer and/or your monitor(s). Also your desk chair. You may get comfy with your mind space in your computer, but you should never forget that it is not yours. If they decide to cut you loose, you may not even have the chance to go back and email yourself your favourite GIFs. Make sure you have copies of anything of personal importance on your own personal computer (not including proprietary stuff that you would get in trouble for having, of course).

How to manage your desk like a freelancer

Will you have a desk? Will you have no desk or many desks? Will you have no desk and many desks? Your reference bookshelf is your home bookshelf. Your plants are your plants are your plants, and only cohabitants (if you have any) will be interacting with them. Your true work space is almost certainly your laptop computer. You will set it up on your dining room table. You will have it on your lap in the living room. You will take it with you to coffee shops and picnic tables. You will back it up very regularly

Backing up is not optional. Get yourself an external hard drive and back up onto it all the time. You may also want to take advantage of cloud-based services if you don’t mind the reduced infosec. Consider that if your computer starts billowing smoke, figuratively or literally, or if someone just plain old walks away with it while you’re in a coffee shop getting a refill, you are on the hook.

Beyond that, you will likely have at least a little assorted paperwork. How you deal with that is your business. But I will tell you one thing: if you work at your dining room table, you will soon find that you are surrounded by a lot of bits of paper and other accessory items, not all of which you will even remember. Your spouse, if you have one, will only be willing to put up with this to a certain extent.

How to decide what work to take on as an in-house editor

You decided what work to take on when you took the job. Now you’re there, you don’t have a lot of control over the specifics. If you’re head of the department, you can assign work to various people, including yourself; otherwise, it’s not really a question of whether you’ll do something someone wants you to, it’s just a question of how good you are at expectation management.

How to decide what work to take on as a freelancer

There are two situations you can be in: having people contact you to do work, and contacting people to see if they have work for you. The former is definitely a better position to be in, and you will be in it more and more as you build up your client base. In fact, you will – if all is going well – occasionally be in the position of having more work that people want you to do than you have time to do it. Here are some points to keep in mind as you decide:

  • Do you have room in your calendar? By this I mean, allowing six hours a day, and estimating how many hours the job will take, and knowing the deadline, can you fit that into it along with everything that’s already there? (And yes, six hours a day – when you work in an office, you’re there more hours than that, but you’re not likely doing actual editorial work more than that. If you pile on too much, you risk getting sloppy. And you need to leave elbow room, as I will mention next.)
  • If it doesn’t fit into your calendar, is it close? Realistically, you can probably overbook yourself by about 20% and get away with it. This is because projects get delayed or even cancelled all the time. And when that happens, you’ll still have enough to keep you busy without having to go out and shake the trees. And if you’re overbooked for a week, well, you can work seven or eight hours a day for one week, can’t you?
  • Is the client a pain in the ass? If yes, only take the work if you are desperate or they pay really well.
  • Do you love or hate the work – the book, the topic, the kind of work? If you love it, try to make time for it, even if it pays less. Happiness is worth it. If you hate it, only do it if it pays really well or you really need the money, and even then, don’t do it all the time. Look, if you want to put up with hating your life just so you don’t have to worry about where your money is coming from, why aren’t you working at a desk job somewhere?
  • No, but seriously, does the book or article make you want to hurt the author? Just don’t work on it. You won’t do a good job anyway.
  • Is the client a publishing house or an individual? Individuals always take extra time for communicating with them and explaining the process and hand-holding and so on, and while you might be able to bury some of that in your fees, you may end up eating the rest. On the other hand, individuals often pay very promptly… except when they just don’t pay at all. Publishing houses, particularly ones you’ve worked with before, are known quantities and don’t need things explained to them. They will probably pay reliably after about six weeks. Probably.
  • How balanced is your schedule? I mean two things by this. First, if you like doing a variety of kinds of work, are you? For instance, if I have a lot of substantive editing going and no copyediting, I will try to squeeze in a copyedit even if it means packing my schedule a bit, just for the sake of my mental freshness. Second, are you allowing enough time for having an actual life as a human being? Going places, doing things, or at least relaxing in your comfy chair with books, games, Twitter, or whatever? Your own life is not optional. It is not empty time. It is full of the things you earn money to be able to do, so they’re obviously more important because they’re the end, not the means – after all, you don’t do leisure just so you can work, do you? Schedule time not to work, and make sure you don’t bump it. Slot in a nice long walk mid-afternoon, even, if you can.
  • How well does the job pay? Of course this matters. If you have nothing in your schedule, then work that doesn’t pay as much as some others is still worth doing, but if it keeps you from doing better-paying jobs – or from finding better-paying jobs – then you’re taking a loss on it. Not all jobs pay the same, and I can’t think of any reason to expect them to. Not all clients can afford the same amount, and some work is more worth doing for other reasons besides the money (points of principle, good feelings, interest…). But once you’re charging a client a certain rate, it’s likely going to be a bit… frictional… to increase the rate. So you have to keep an eye on the bottom line, and cultivate the customers who pay well and make you happy.
  • Don’t do work for free. I mean, seriously, WTF, do you think lawyers and doctors do freebies? There are exceptions – if you would volunteer your time and money in other ways for a cause or organization, then volunteering editing is fair as well – but don’t do free work hoping to get paying business from it. Free work only gets you more free work. And don’t do work “for exposure.” Every Canadian knows you can die of exposure. Also, you’re an editor. There is no exposure.

How to track time, bill, and get paid like an in-house editor

Some workplaces don’t require you to actually log your time; they just require you to show up and leave at the appropriate times. Well, I think there are workplaces like that. I’ve heard. Most workplaces these days, having easy software-driven ways to track your time spent on various projects so they can do budget and performance analyses, are more than glad to make you log every little thing you do in six-minute increments. Some even have timers that you click onto when you start a task and when you end it. You get the feeling some members of the management team would gladly stand over employees with a stopwatch if they could.

But if you’re on salary, all of that has no direct relation to how much you get paid. If you are paid for 37.5 hours a week, they expect you to log at least 37.5 hours a week; some companies will let you build up time that you can take off later, but even if they do, you will probably never take it all. And yet, however much you work, your rate of pay does not twitch.

And every two weeks, or twice a month, like clockwork, you get paid, probably by direct deposit. The money magically shows up in your bank account. You don’t have to worry. You can count on it. You make plans for it. You don’t see a need to build up a buffer. This can lead to personal financial habits that those people on financial advice TV shows counsel against.

How to track time, bill, and get paid like a freelance editor

There are many ways freelancers track the time they spend. I use the very sophisticated method of looking at the clock when I start, and looking at it again when I stop, and then entering the difference into an Excel spreadsheet I have set up for the purpose. Since I track nearly all of my freelance work in half-hour increments, as I am working I have it in mind what stopping time would be what amount of work done. I also have another trick: If I am working in a coffee shop, I will take a picture of my coffee, my computer, my table, and my view, and tweet it (because I am still happy to have my choice of place to work, rather than being tied to the same desk every day), and later on I can just check the time stamp on the tweet to see when I started working.

I am told other freelancers use apps and things like that. As with my calendar, I don’t use things that require me to be connected to the internet with my laptop all the time. How am I supposed to work in a park with that?

The one thing that is true, though, except when you’re working on a project with a fixed total fee (e.g., they base their payment on the page count), is that every hour you work is an hour you get paid for, and every hour you don’t work is an hour you don’t get paid for. You want to take a day off? Go right ahead, and no boss is going to tell you you can’t – but either you earn that much less or, more likely, you have to work those hours another day. But, on the other hand, if you’re working late every day because it’s super busy, you will be getting that much extra money, unlike someone who’s on salary, who can do a twelve-hour day for exactly zero point zero zero cents more than they would get for doing a seven-and-a-half-hour day.

For a couple of consistent regular clients, I add up my time worked over the month and bill them for it at the end of the month. For every other client, which includes all my book publisher clients, I add up my time for a project and send an invoice at the same time as I send the edited file(s) to them. If the project fee is fixed in advance, I still track the time just so I know whether I’m making my target hourly rate or not. For copyediting gigs, there will likely be two invoices, one when I send the copyedit back and the other when I have checked the author’s responses and revisions and made a clean copy to go to layout.

And then I enter the invoice data into a tab on my spreadsheet, and I highlight the as-yet-empty cell for amount I was paid until I get paid and enter it in, so that later on, I can scroll up and see who’s behind on paying. With most clients, if they get behind, it’s either because someone forgot to do some paperwork or because they’re a dirt-poor publisher of interesting books and are waiting to get money in before they can pay money out.

Occasionally you’ll get a client who stiffs you. This is where having a good contract can help, but unless the amount is rather large, you’ll probably spend more collecting it than you’ll even get. Of course, you don’t work with them again, and perhaps you put a curse on them or anonymously mail them envelopes full of glitter or anthrax or glittering anthrax, but you’re in business and the occasional loss is a normal part of doing business; in retail it’s called “shrinkage,” though everyone knows that means “theft.”

And every day you check the mailbox, and when you get a cheque, even though it’s money you earned by the sweat of your brow (mostly from excess caffeine consumption), it’s like Christmas and your birthday rolled together. And you go deposit it immediately and then you immediately slide some amount of it into a savings account so you’ll have it there when tax time comes. Or anyway, I do that. It seems prudent. Oh, also, save for your retirement, if you want to have one.

How to socialize like an in-house editor

When you get to your desk, the people are right. there. You can’t not be surrounded by people. Even if you’re working from home, it’s people people people, because they all have stuff they need from you within probably less time than you want to give it to them. This does not mean that you are nonstop interacting with people. But it does mean that any time you want to interact with people, you can. Go to the kitchen or the water cooler or Slack or whatever. If you’re at your desk in an open-plan office, or even one with fabric-covered dividers, you can hear your co-workers typing, talking on the phone, breathing, existing. The last person I had a desk next to was an utter delight (I’m not being sarcastic) for many reasons, one of which was her way of expressing exasperation with loud sighs that probably could have driven a small turbine to power my computer.

Work in an office is a huge social group. And many, maybe even most, of the best friends I’ve made in the latter half of my life have been people I met at work. (Some of the worst unfriends, too, but there it is. I don’t have to see them anymore, and I still stay in touch with my friends.) And there are parties. Christmas parties, sometimes summer barbecues, perhaps pizza lunches. You will never need to exert extra effort to find people to socialize with. You may need to exert extra effort to avoid socializing.

How to socialize like a freelance editor

Many freelance editors love the solitary life. I am fond of solitude, but within measure. If my wife is not working from home, I cannot possibly stay at home all day and see nobody. I don’t have to interact with them directly – in fact, I mostly don’t want to; it gets exhausting and I have work to do – but I need people around me to ignore. So (global disasters permitting) I go in the afternoons to coffee shops (ahem, espresso bars with tables) and plant myself there with my laptop, just as at least a half dozen others in any given place do at the same time. Toronto has an entire workforce who use espresso bars as their work spaces. And I have come to recognize quite a few of my fellow coffice (coffee office) denizens. I have spoken to approximately zero of them. What do I look like, some kind of annoying extravert? But of course I do talk to the baristas, and have become reasonably good friends with some of them.

So how do I actually directly socialize? Twitter, mainly, and a few close friends my wife and I have known for years. I don’t do Facebook much anymore; I don’t need to be confronted constantly by the fact that certain relatives and former classmates have developed political views that I find odious. I am also in some Slack groups for freelance editors, but because Slack has only two settings for notifications – radio silence (none) or variable torrent (absolutely everything anyone says) – I have had to keep notifications turned off, and as a result by the time I go to look the conversation has moved on so far that I feel very bad about having missed it all and I slink away silently.

Oh, and I go to editors’ conferences – Editors Canada and ACES. They are both a lot of fun and can even be educational. I get to spend time with people who are very much my kind.

And how do I make friends? Aside from going to conferences twice a year? Very slowly. My circle of friends has stayed pretty steady in size since I went freelance. So if you’re planning to go freelance and you like having friends but you don’t have too many yet, maybe try to make some more while you can.

How to take a vacation like an in-house editor

First, determine that you would like to take a vacation. Figure out when and where. This may be contingent on the availability and plans of other family members. Look up flights and hotels. Then…

…go to work and ask for the vacation days. Oh, someone else is taking the vacation then? Hmm. Or there’s a big project then? Ah. Well. Lather, rinse, repeat, until you get the green light on your time. Immediately block it into the schedule. Then…

…hope that you can still get the same flights and hotels at the same prices. Don’t be surprised if they have mysteriously gotten more expensive. They saw you looking.

When you are on vacation, it is like dreaming. You are in a whole other world. You can hardly believe that there is a place you used to work and will work again, and a desk you would go sit at for the same third of a day, day in, day out, with the same people and all that. And then you get back and it’s just like when your alarm goes off. What was that dream? Ah. Well, it’s over now.

How to take a vacation like a freelance editor

Decide when you want to take a vacation. Is there room in your calendar then? Well, then, block it out so you don’t promise the time to anyone’s project. Or do you just want to take a day off all of a sudden? If you can still hit your deadlines, go ahead! You’re your own boss! You are master of your own time! But you will always remember…

…that when you’re not working, you’re not earning money. You have lots of money saved up? Good! Just keep in mind that about the same time your credit card bills for this trip come around, you’ll be getting less money in the mail (or direct deposit) because you didn’t invoice for those 30 hours because you didn’t work them.

And of course you’ll probably work extra before and after the vacation. But that’s a thing that in-house people tend to do too. Those projects don’t just disappear.

When you are on vacation, it is a bit more continuous with your regular life than if you’re in-house. This is because you work at home, and because all of your life is your own. You don’t spend a third of each day in a different world, playing a role in a distinct system and command structure, while the other two-thirds you are your own master. As a freelancer, you are always your own master, and there is seldom a hard boundary between work life and home life. But don’t let that tempt you to do work while you’re on vacation. You’re planning to get just a bit done so you don’t get behind? Don’t do it – for two reasons: first, it will take away from your vacay (and will likely annoy whoever you’re with); second, you probably won’t get it done anyway. Vacations have a certain inertia of leisure.

How to spend non-work time like an in-house editor

You’re away from work! You’re off! You’re free! What do you want to do? Relax? Read? Write? Go to the movies, the opera, the ballet (all subject to non-plague conditions)? Of course, you have to make sure your plans don’t run up against when you’re required at work. You can’t go to the beach on a Wednesday afternoon, for instance. And occasionally you may risk being late to something you have tickets for, depending on what feces-fan interface is happening at the office.

When I was working in-house, I spent a fair amount of my own time on my own projects, writing things and so on. I even did some freelance on the side. It wasn’t part of my day job, so I didn’t think of it as work work. A change is as good as a rest, right?

How to spend non-work time like a freelance editor

See above about vacation. Same considerations apply to your regular leisure time. Go to the beach on Wednesday afternoon if you want (subject to feasibility), as long as you’ll still be able to make all your deadlines. Try not to think about the work you could be doing while you’re at the beach. Personal projects? Hell, your whole life is in some way a personal project. Which, however, means that you may be less inclined to spend time in the evening on personal projects, because it’s neither a rest nor a change.

How to go to bed like an in-house editor

Not too late! Gotta get up in the morning, you know!

How to go to bed like a freelance editor

Oh, shit, is it almost 2 AM? Whoops, I did it again.

How to be an editor

And there it all is. Another day in the life of a word gardener, a text worker, a manuscript midwife.

Oh, did you want to know how to edit? Ha. That’s far too big a subject for here. It’s a thing you need to learn to do, and read books on, and take courses in, and do and do and do, and it’s something you need to have a certain instinct for as well. Even just the full details of how to be an editor are enough for a full book (hmm…). But I’ll say one thing right now about how to be an editor: You’re helping text get from author(s) to readers; what the readers want matters most, what the authors and clients (or your boss) want matters second most, and what you want doesn’t matter at all except for inasmuch as it helps those other wants meet and be met. You aren’t Zeus, you aren’t Venus; you’re Cupid, helping the two sides of this textual intercourse get together. So load your quiver with love arrows, not poison darts.

3 responses to “A day in the life of an editor

  1. Thank you for writing this post!! It might sound silly but after almost two years of freelance editing, I still laboured under the dim impression that I’m somehow not ‘doing it right’ or professional enough. Reading all this made me very happy about my choices and assured me that I’m doing all right! I only manage about three hours a day, as I’m working around toddler care, and always thought that it was barely anything – but your point about six hours of editing is really validating. Thanks! 🙂

  2. I enjoyed this a lot. I think it covers many aspects of freelancing that few people talk about, and is amusing besides. (I was a freelancer for twenty years between gigs at NYC publishing houses and retired from in-house work in 2015.) Thank you.

    Under “How to Decide What Work to Take On,” I’d mention to your readers an issue that comes up more often than they’d think.

    Well-meaning friends might mention to friends of theirs that they know an editor. Some of these friends (total strangers to the editor) happen to have secret writing projects squirreled away in their desk drawers. These people write in their spare time, away from their professional life, which doesn’t involve writing. Sometimes they end up calling you.

    From experience (once was enough), I’d advise just saying no. Often, the writing is excruciatingly bad and cannot possibly be fixed. The author can’t be reasoned with because the author doesn’t get it. You’re inviting trouble.

    But this person is a friend of a friend, and you want to proceed carefully. How do you say no politely?

    This has worked for me quite a few times: I’ve heard out the person and his/her description of subject, etc.; I’ve asked the appropriate questions–how long is it?, etc. I then explain to them that I charge [name your rate; mine is high] per hour and that I’d have to see the work to give a real estimate, but that based on their description it could take, say, 50 hours or more. Then I say: “Please also think about whether you really want my feedback. I’m a professional editor, and my notes to you will be different from what you hear from others.”

    I’ve never heard back from anyone I ever said that to.

  3. James, an excellent post I can share with friends or, as is more likely these days, the kids of friends who contact me to find out about editing as a career. And thanks for reminding me of our song (must record a sort-of-professional version of it one of these days)!

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