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Getting into Scientific Editing

Updated on June 26, 2017

How Can I Get Started as a Freelance Editor?

Freelance editing is a great way to make some money in your free time. In fact, for me it offered an alternative career path, freeing me from an extremely stressful job with long hours and allowing me to work from home on a full-time basis. If you’ve got a degree or postgraduate qualification in a science discipline, an above-average level of written English, and a computer with internet access and a recent version of Microsoft Word, you’re more than prepared to enter this exciting field.

You’ll have access to fascinating research before it ever makes it to publication, learn about subjects you know little about, and meet all sorts of interesting characters, all while working from the comfort of your own home. What’s more, by focusing on the agencies I list below, you can avoid wasting your time applying to those companies for which you’re not qualified. If you’ve got a PhD or MD to your name, the world’s your oyster, and you might consider applying to other outlets like Edanz, BioScience Writers, or Bioedit, but these and other companies insist on doctorate-level qualifications and/or extensive industry experience before they’ll consider your application. By sticking to my suggestions you can avoid filling your mailbox with the eye-watering numbers of rejection letters I managed to accumulate in my first few months as an editor.

Even by sticking to this brief list, there’s no reason why you can’t manage to get enough work to earn around $1,000 for a 35-hour week while finding your feet as a freelance academic editor. Not bad for a job with a 20-foot commute!

It's easy to get into freelance editing - a great source of income if you want to work from home
It's easy to get into freelance editing - a great source of income if you want to work from home

What’s Involved in This Freelance Editing Lark?

Editors come in many flavors in the publishing industry — content editors, line editors, developmental editors — but when working as a freelance academic editor you won’t find yourself pigeon-holed in this way. The majority of the work available comes as original research papers produced by non-native English-speaking scientists in the Far East and South America. While their research may be cutting edge, their inability to communicate their findings at a native English-speaking level means that many of them have difficulties in getting their papers accepted for peer review, not to mention publication. Most of the research institutes in the developing world will have a relationship with an editing firm that can take their work, pass it through their language-polishing service, and present it ready for publishing.

This is where us freelance editors come in. The editing companies listed in this article will evaluate the paper they’ve been presented with, then assign it to one of their editors with expertise in the relevant area. Whether your background is in astrophysics or zoology, there’s a place for you here, as these large companies need the freelancers on their books to cover all eventualities. You’ll generally be given 3–7 days to proofread, restructure, and rewrite portions of the work as you see fit, obviously without changing the author’s intended meaning. Depending on the company you’re working for, you may need to communicate with the author for clarification, but this is often handled by the company’s in-house editorial staff.

The work is interesting and varied, and no two projects are the same, though if your work is up to scratch you may find your authors specifically requesting your services when they next complete a project. This is especially exciting when it happens, for you get a front row seat on the development of a novel field of research!

How Do I Land My First Freelance Editing Job?

Freelancing is like anything else: everyone wants you to have experience, but nobody really wants to get you that experience. In my view, there are three key things wannabe freelancers need to do to land their first job:

  1. Update your resume. While you may not want this to become your day job, you do need an editing-specific resume. Emphasize your interest in reading scientific materials and your abilities to write and communicate clearly.
  2. Start a blog. In the absence of any paid experience, being able to point to writing samples online is immensely valuable. The material doesn't necessarily need to be scientific in nature; for example, my first blog was about baking! However, make sure your posts are well written, spell-checked, and meticulously punctuated. It goes without saying that the same must be true of your resume.
  3. Build a network of publishing professionals on LinkedIn. People are surprisingly open to connections they don't know on LinkedIn, and by connecting with other freelancers and editors, you can lend weight to your image as a junior editor, at least to anyone that throws a passing glance over your profile. Make it an aim to add at least ten new connections every day for a month - you'll be amazed at how easy this is to accomplish.

Editing Tests

Obviously, no company is going to hire you without some evidence of your abilities as an editor, and so completing a sample editing task is mandatory for all of the organizations below. Typically, the tests are around 1500 words long, and loaded with inconsistencies and grammatical errors that will make your brain ache after the first 15 minutes. Fear not; there are some simple tips and tricks to bear in mind when completing these assignments, and it is my intention to spell these out in detail in my very next post.

Another Day at the Office

Doesn't this beat a cubicle? Freelance editors are free to work anywhere, at a time that suits them.
Doesn't this beat a cubicle? Freelance editors are free to work anywhere, at a time that suits them.

What Editing Agencies Should You Apply To?

Academic editing for non-native English speakers is an exploding industry, and the number of companies offering opportunities for new freelancers is sure to continue growing. For now, however, these are my top recommendations for where to start.

Enago / Crimson Interactive

This is a company offering a high volume of work for freelancers meeting their criteria of holding an MSc or PhD and passing an editing test. The firm prides itself on its fast turnaround times, something that can put their freelancers under pressure. Jobs are assigned round the clock, typically with 12 to 16 hours deadlines. My experience was that these editing tasks were assigned regardless of my specified hours of work and areas of expertise: this was not my favorite company to work with, but it did offer me a good, steady source of income for the six months I stuck with it.

Enago pay their freelance academic editors $15 per thousand words of text.

Sirius Interactive

Sirius is a far smaller company that is a pleasure to work for. They do not often have openings, but are worth contacting as they will keep your details on file if you perform well on their editing tests. The rates of pay vary depending on your performance and the input required from the in-house editors, but can range up to $20 per thousand words.

Cactus Communications

The giant of the industry, and recently rated the 12th best company in the world in which to work from home. My relationship with Cactus goes back to the very beginning of my freelance career, and it remains my favorite employer. Jobs are assigned daily, with deadlines ranging from one to seven days, and the company is very good at ensuring the papers assigned to you are a good match for your expertise. You receive a quality score and detailed feedback for every paper you edit, helping you improve as an editor. By working to improve your score and maintain consistency, you are rewarded with bonus rates of pay. As a large organization, Cactus are constantly on the lookout for new freelance editors.

The rate of pay depends on your average quality score; starting at $15, it can fall to $12 or climb to $18 per thousand words. I have maintained the upper rate of pay for over a year now - it's really not all that difficult because of the feedback, which identifies any little errors that might be creeping into your work. There's plenty of work available, with the top freelancers earning $3000-4000 per month from their Cactus work alone.

There are many other agencies you might try, but gaining some experience with one of these companies listed is an incredibly useful step in getting your foot in the door of some of the more prestigious (and well-paying) organizations.

You Can Read, You Have a Computer - Shouldn't You Be Freelancing?

Other Sources of Freelance Editing Work

As well as attaching yourself to one or more editing agencies, you might consider advertising your services on a micro-job site such as Upwork or Fiverr. Setting up a profile is straightforward, but actually securing your first few editing gigs can be difficult due to the huge competition in the marketplace, plus the fact you will be pitching for jobs with no feedback ratings to back up your application.

There are many other pitfalls to using these sites, although there are ways and means around these, and I will devote a later post to covering just these types of jobs boards. In the meantime, I would suggest your time is best spent trying to secure agency employment, although I did eventually land a very valuable long-term contract through Upwork; one that is ongoing, and has earned me in excess of $12,000 to date.

What I would suggest all prospective freelancers do is develop their LinkedIn profile to reflect their editing interests. Connect with as many people within the academic publishing community as possible in order to add gravitas to any application you make through the site, and do not rely on LinkedIn job postings to get freelance editing work. This sort of work is rarely advertised. My preferred way to use LinkedIn is to search "freelance editor -video," and to sort the results by date. I do this at least once a day, and generate at least three high-quality leads every week using this alone.

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