How I Became a Full-Time Freelance Editor — Should you make the change?

Andrew Kim
The Wordvice Workshop
10 min readAug 28, 2020


Most editors and writers dream of becoming a freelancer. This is my story of how I made the leap in the time of COVID-19

Building for the future…


In 2020, everything we once knew about the nature of work has changed. From office hours to commuting to workflows to management, everyone is scrambling to make sense of the COVID-19 pandemic. To many, this is an earthquake that has destroyed a well-oiled economy. To others, it is a prime opportunity in a time of uncertainty. Truth be told, it’s both.

While many offices and workplaces have remained open, opting for limited office hours or at-home work, other businesses haven’t been so lucky. According to a recent journal article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “41.3% of businesses reported that they [have] temporarily closed because of COVID-19.” This is a staggering figure that has continued to result in millions of unemployed workers.

And I was one of them.

This is the story of how I switched from a steady office job to being a full-time freelance writer/editor.

Why I became a freelance editor: When one door closes…

The time was late 2019. The global workforce was happily strolling along, enjoying record high stock prices and low unemployment. For many, it was as good as it had ever been (you can include me in that group). At the time, I was two years into a lab technician job at a biotech firm. Every day I would run a high-throughput analysis of livestock genomes, mining for the best (and juiciest) DNA markers for our rancher and farmer clients.

Things weren’t exactly going as planned

Things were fine. But of course, I didn’t know that COVID-19 acting the part of Lucy would soon pull the football out from under the foot of my Charlie Brown.

Fast forward to March 2020 and our firm was shut down due to a coworker’s family member contracting the virus. In all honesty, we would have had to close anyway as a small, retail (non-government contracts) lab. In any case, I was suddenly left without a job with no competitors or similar companies to hop to. The virus had completely ravaged my industry, which cannot be done remotely.

I had no choice. I had to pick myself up and make a career change.

How I became a freelance editor: Another door opens…

At this point, I had no idea what I was going to do, as I didn’t have the immediate fallback of switching to another company for a similar job. I feel my situation at that time is not so unlike many others, even now unfortunately. If this is where you find yourself as you read this, I hope the following can at least help you get organized and point you in the right direction.

Walking through that door is hard, at first

So how did I make the switch to becoming a full-time freelance science editor?

Here are some freelancing tips to keep in mind:

Know Thyself

Sit down and take stock of your “resources.” What do I mean by that? To advance your career, think of yourself as a business. All businesses have resources (capital, equipment, human, etc), and some have more value or relevance than others, depending on the situation and customers.

For myself, I have always been on the science track, both at the undergrad and graduate levels. As an Asian-American, I also was able to network easily with international researchers from Asia in my lab and at meetings. These two tidbits combined are what led me naturally into being a freelance proofreader and editor for ESL researchers, especially from Asia.

Remember, to get hired by anyone (a company or a client), you must offer something of value. So take an “inventory” of your valuable skills and experience and think about what you really can (and can’t) offer.

Don’t stop learning

To be a freelancer, you must know your craft. But that’s not the only thing, because you must also be a salesperson. You’re selling not only your craft but also your personality and personal touch, all while trying to assure your client that they are as secure with you as they would be with an agency or company.

For myself, that meant two things: relearning technical writing and newly learning sales techniques. I hadn’t been published since graduate school, and I had no idea how to sell myself like a professional (against other professionals).

This meant seeking out knowledge wherever possible. I quickly found that the Internet holds a plethora of resources. Don’t let anyone tell you that MOOC (massive open online classes) are worthless or “nothing groundbreaking.” To become an expert, you must start at the beginning like everyone else.

Have a portfolio ready

Whether you’re aiming for academic or copy editing or working as a pure freelancer or contractor, you will need to have a portfolio of writing samples. Copywriting, copyediting, and proofreading are all fair game here.

Your main goal as a freelancer is to offer that personal touch while making sure you are a safe investment. The keyword is “safe” in this case. Customers and clients want to know that your quality is just as good as a vetted agency. How can you assure this? A portfolio.

There are fantastic portfolio agencies out there that can whip you up a website in a single day. If you’re on a budget or a DIYer, then making your online portfolio isn’t too hard. If your resume or cover letters are lacking, there are professional business editing services as well. If it leads to success, it’s well worth it in terms of your time and money.

What if you don’t have an extensive portfolio? Do what worked for me: collect a bunch of testimonials from professionals and colleagues who can attest to your skills. While none of my co-workers were writers per se, they were all scientists and thus knew other scientists.

I assembled a portfolio of sorts featuring their recommendations so I had something to show. This gave me the “in” I needed to land my first few academic editing clients.

Network = Necessary

Remember that our base premise of this entire process is thinking of ourselves as a business and using our resources. Well, there’s no more powerful resource than who you know. Don’t be afraid to ask for opportunities. And don’t be afraid to offer them as well. You’ve got nothing to lose.

The easiest and sometimes only place you can start at is your friends and colleagues. Even your family. You may not get any business directly, but word-of-mouth and referrals have to come from somewhere. Why not from those around you who know you best?

For myself, talking to my co-workers meant getting leads and clients immediately. One unique thing about academic research is that it is mostly government-funded, which means it’s somewhat recession-proof. That naturally extends to English editing services and the editors who work for them. I’ve personally seen my workload from smaller Asian nations such as Korea and Taiwan increase, as many researchers are rushing to publish research and reviews on coronavirus.

Choose your clients wisely

Like Indiana Jones, your Holy Grail is your clients or your contracting company. Choose wisely and your career will prosper through referrals and a budding portfolio. Choose poorly and you will be faced with unrealistic expectations, impossible deadlines, and broken contracts.

We as freelancers are a business, business often resembles a game, and success in a game is as much about your “opponent” (our client) as it is yourself. You wouldn’t go up against Michael Jordan in basketball, so why would you take on a graduate thesis on particle physics when you studied biology?

Don’t take on more than you can chew or handle, lest you suffer a huge defeat. Barry Greenstein, the famous poker player, alludes to this strategy in his famous book Ace on the River. He explains his success as follows: In a world where only 5% of poker players consistently make money, he managed to be massively successful while also admitting he was never the best player at the table.

How can this be? The secret is that while he was never the most skilled, he was the most self-aware. He simply avoided the best players and stuck to his gameplan, singling out the weaker players and not getting involved in uncomfortable situations.

So avoid clients or companies that try to renegotiate at every turn. Put yourself in the best position for success and avoid losing situations by finding loyal, trustworthy clients and meeting their every need.

Freelancing for clients or companies? English Editing Services

Sometimes, you can do both

Until now, I’ve mostly focused on freelancing for clients and only mentioned being an independent contractor a few times. This is because when you think of “freelance editor” or “freelance copyeditor”, you think of someone who works at home and is totally independent.

There’s another way to be a freelance academic editor. By contracting as a freelancer for an editing and proofreading service, for example, you can have the benefits of a work-at-home lifestyle while not having to seek out your clients (and losing them).

While I maintain my clients and have been fortunate enough to become a published editor, I also prefer the stability of being hand-fed work on a silver platter without having to worry about client retention or coming into an office every day (does anyone enjoy commuting?).

A full-time office editing job may bound you to exclusivity, whereas being a pure freelancer is more susceptible to competition. If you look at the numerous editing companies out there such as the one I work for, you can see that freelancers are always being hired because different editors have different schedules. In my own experience, once you learn the in-house standards, you are in complete control of how much workload you can take.

How much do English editing companies pay?

The typical English editing service is going to pay around $12–22 per hour, in my experience. This is some large variance. Getting 150 editing hours per month at $20 per hour is a living. At $12 per hour? Not so much.

It all comes down to two factors: yourself and the company

For yourself, the factors are your editing experience, educational background, specialization, availability, and work speed.

Personally, I have PhD experience, publications, and many years of editing under my belt. However, my specialization (biology) is very competitive — there’s just lots of biology graduates, medical students, and burnouts out there. I outcompete many by working faster since I have lots of experience. Then again, if I was in a more specialized technical field like electronics engineering or computer science research, I’d get paid more per hour.

Time is money, of course. Choose your editing company…WISELY

Pay will also be very dependent on where the editing company is based

Editing companies that are based in North America and cater to strictly academic researchers are going to a lot pay more. This makes sense as you’ll be editing high impact articles that professors and researchers pay big bucks to publish in international journals.

On the other hand, companies that are based, for example, in India are bound by economic factors such as their lower standard of living and currency compared to the U.S dollar. In my experience, the pay per hour offered was simply too low for my time.

Some companies will try to obfuscate where they are based in order to portray themselves as American or British, but you will quickly find out the truth after applying and dealing with their management. It’s expensive to hire native English-speaking staff, so many companies outsource.

Pay will vary depending on their requirements and clientele

Companies that require a graduate degree and more editing experience will also obviously pay more. Here’s a great Medium resource about the requirements and pay of various editing services. As you can see, certain editing companies are going to pay more because they only accept the best.

On the other hand, editing services that focus on university students and college admissions essays are going to pay less, as it’s much easier to edit a high school student’s application essay over a professor’s Nature article.

That doesn’t mean one is necessarily better. With academic article editing, your workflow will be less and more sporadic. With college admissions essay editing, you’ll be expected to work much faster in order to earn the same amount. It’s all up to your skillset and preferences.

So be very discriminating and do your research about each editing company’s base of operations and clientele. If you have more of an academic/research background, make sure that academic or manuscript editing is a focus.

Freelancing vs Salary Pay

Some will decry the lower pay that comes with working for an editing agency versus only for yourself. Well, any small business owner (remember, that’s us!) will tell you that outsourcing what you’re not good at so you can focus on what you are is standard practice. Designers outsource to coders, and vice versa.

What we’re good at is writing, editing, and content. So while you may also be a genius at marketing, others may not be (or not want to be). The costs you’d incur by offloading just website building, maintenance, and marketing could be more than the gap between an editing service and freelance pay.

So balance between both. Free up just enough time by freelancing for an editing agency so you can market yourself properly to your most profitable and valuable clients.

Freelancing = Freedom

Is Freelancing for You?

Whether you’re thinking of jumping into freelancing, already decided to, or looking for tips, I hope this article as well as my other content can help you. This is just my journey, but it’s not so unlike many others. Just remember to know your value and your worth as a one-person business!



Andrew Kim
The Wordvice Workshop

Andrew currently lives in Seoul, Korea. He works as a freelancer for Wordvice Editing Service and writes about science, expat life in Korea, and culture.