Don’t Quit Your Day Job, Change It

On this, the year anniversary of leaving my day job in academic administration to write and edit full time, I’m in the mood to share some advice on the topics of job-leaving, budgeting, and freelancing as they apply to those who wish to become self-employed as writers and editors. Over the course of the past year, I’ve been asked time and again about making the transition from salaried employment to self-employment, about being a freelance editor, and about becoming a soon-to-be-published author. The questions have come from friends interested in making a similar transition in their own careers, from writers eager to ditch the doldrums of their office jobs, and from the generally curious. And I’m happy to talk about all of it!

So, I want to share what’s worked for me, with the caveats that there’s no prescription for success, and this is hardly a one-size-fits-all situation. There are, however, a few general principles I think can be universally applicable within the writing and editing sphere. That’s where my experience lies, and while some of the ideas in this post may translate to other professions, I wouldn’t be best positioned to make that assumption. (I.e. if you’re not a writer / editor, YMMV.)

Let’s start at the beginning. One of the things I heard constantly—and still hear—as a writer is this: Don’t. Quit. Your. Day. Job.

I think this is good advice for most, at least until you’ve reached the point in your career as a published writer where you know you can support yourself long-term with royalties, talks, school visits, and whatever other sustaining income your career brings in beyond the initial boost of advance money. Or unless you have other financial resources, or a partner’s income, that can support you fully. If this is your situation, fantastic, and you do you.

But you said you left your day job! you’re probably thinking. I thought this was a post about how to quit my day job! Right. This isn’t a post about not having a day job. This is a post about becoming self-employed and transitioning into a work situation that’s compatible with your writing and hopefully even makes you happy. If you want to both write and edit, and your writing income is not going to sustain you 100% financially, this post is for you.

Let’s talk first about timing. I made the transition from salaried to self-employment several months before my first book sale. It would have been far more fiscally conservative to wait until I had guaranteed writing income lined up to pair with my editorial income, but I knew I had enough in savings to float me for my first year (more on that in a minute), so to me the risk was worth the possibility that I wouldn’t sell a book right away, that I’d have to rely solely on my editorial income at first, and that I might need to re-evaluate my plans. Ask yourself how much of a risk you can afford and will be comfortable with taking. I’m not here to tell you to stay in an employment situation that you’re eager to leave until you’ve sold seven books and hit the New York Times Bestseller list. That’s not what I did, and while that’s probably safe and sound advice in many ways, that may never happen for me or you, and it’s not the only path. Know your financial situation, and map out the timing accordingly.

Now let’s talk practicalities. While I did leave my full-time administrative job, I didn’t leave my day job. I changed my day job, and I structured it so it would be more like three-quarters-time as opposed to full-time to accommodate my writing. I ramped up my existing editorial freelance work (which I’d been building up over the course of several years) and that work became my new day job, which I consider to be a companion to—but distinct from—my writing. Now I work from home in my lounge pants, but I still have non-writing employment to sustain me. In addition to the fact that I genuinely enjoy editing, and that my editorial work is necessary income, being an editor also shields me from the anxiety of feeling like absolutely everything in my professional life hinges on writing and publishing books. Instead, my career has multiple facets, and frankly this is a much better situation for the anxiety-prone, like me.

So, if you’re a writer looking to leave your day job, and you want to become self-employed as a freelance editor to support or supplement your writing habit, here are six principles I’ve derived from my own journey. I hope they’ll help you along yours.

First, be an editor. What I mean is, acquire the training and experience necessary to become an editor before you hang a sign. Many writers are good editors; many are not. The two do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, and—truth time—don’t assume editing is something at which you’ll naturally excel because you’re a talented writer. There’s a reason I edit instead of any number of other things I could be doing as a freelancer: because I’m trained, experienced, and good at it. (I would, for instance, be a horrible freelance publicist, and I wouldn’t have the first clue about being a freelance web designer.) So, if you’re not already trained and experienced as an editor, pause here first. If editorial freelance is the path you want to pursue, acquire the necessary training and experience first. If putting in the (likely several years) of time and work necessary to get to the point where you can strike out on your own doesn’t sound appealing to you, know that editorial freelance is not the only way to supplement your writing income. This may seem like obvious advice, but I see a lot of folks claiming to be editors who don’t really have the know-how or ability to do good work, and I don’t wish to contribute to a false impression that any writer can or should also become a freelance editor on the side.

For me, the path to becoming a freelance editor meant internships at a mid-sized press then a Big 5 publisher, entry-level employment as an editorial assistant, then close to a decade of experience as an associate editor and later senior editor at a small press. In addition to that, I got my MFA in creative writing; I took classes with copyeditors, book editors, and literary agents; and I began to work with private clients. For much of this time, I was also working in academic administration to pay the bills. This is just one path to becoming an independent editor. There are many, but the point is, gain the training and experience you need to edit well and edit with confidence before you call yourself an editor.

Second, establish recurring client relationships or permalance work before you leave your full-time job behind. This is more of a tip than a hard-and-fast rule. Just as you can leave your full-time job before selling a book, you can also leave your full-time job without any editorial work in the pipeline. For me, however, knowing that I had a solid permalance (i.e permanent or long-term freelance) situation—the editorial position with the small press mentioned above—that would support me at least partially was both a practical and psychological cushion when I made the leap. So, this will likely mean a year or more of busting your butt to balance your full-time job and your writing with simultaneously dipping your toes into the editorial freelance waters, making contacts, and building client relationships.

And you know what? Being over-extended like that sucks. But what sucks even more is leaving your job and having zero client work or connections, which unlike a book sale, are things you do have a good deal of control over. So, if you can hustle to line up one or more permalance gigs or recurring client relationships before you leave, I highly recommend it.

Third, know what you want, but be open to possibilities. When I left my full-time job, I knew that I wanted to work with private editorial clients. I established my practice, Copper Lantern Studio, to do just that. (Developing the services you will offer and establishing your business is a whole other post. For starters, you can check out my website and those of other independent editors to get an idea of services and rates that are out there.) But unlike a salaried job, private client work isn’t on a steady pay schedule. Some months, I’m inundated and have to turn down projects. Other months are less busy. So in addition to the work I take on through Copper Lantern, I’ve kept my eyes open for other possibilities throughout the year. I picked up a second permalance position through a book coaching company, and I work seasonally as an admissions reader for the university where I used to work full-time. (It’s not editorial, but I find the admissions work to be fun and engaging, and it’s a great supplement to my editorial jobs.) I’ve also established relationships with other editors with whom I occasionally share work when one of us is too busy to take on a project.

The key here is simply to keep an open mind about where your work will come from and be willing to diversify the kinds of work you take on, at least initially. Later, you may be able to be more choosey and to streamline and specialize, but right out the gate, know that a steady stream of private client work will take time to build up.

Fourth, know your resources, make a budget, and save up. This is a big one. When I left my full-time job, I had enough in savings so that if I brought in no income beyond the relatively minor amount I had already lined up, my husband and I would be okay for a year. This was in combination with his salary, and my ability to go onto his benefit plan. Knowing your personal financial situation and its abilities and limitations is important. I knew that my husband and I could not get by for long on his salary alone; we’d tried that once before, in reverse, with my comparable salary when he was finishing graduate school, and it was a short-term solution, at best. So, I knew how much I needed to have in savings for us to be okay for a year before I left my full-time job.

Is a year a magic number? No, in fact a year is probably on the conservative side. You could budget for eight months, or six. The point is to know the extent of the resources available to you personally (which may be in combination with your partner, or family, as applicable), make a budget, and save to the point where you are personally comfortable, whether that’s to reach six or eight or twelve months out. This strategy allows you to get your footing, build up your clients, and not run yourself and your family into the ground when you’re not a wild millionaire freelance success right out the gate (which—truth time again—you won’t be). But that’s okay because you’ll have savings and a budget beneath your feet.

Fifth, approach your transition to freelancing as a one-year (or six month, or eight month) plan, with long-term potential. To put it in bookish terms, since I know that’s where your heads are at anyway, think of your move from full-time employment to self-employment as a stand-alone novel with series potential. When I left my full-time job, I knew I could go back. Not to my specific job, that was gone, but to my field, and probably even my same employer. I didn’t want to make that reverse move, but I knew that if, despite all my strategizing and budgeting and saving, it just didn’t work out beyond the year I’d planned for, I could go back to what I’d been doing before, and financially, the year would be basically a wash—no harm, no foul. I wanted my plan to work out long-term, but in terms of my finances, I could only guarantee that I had one year during which this career change would work.

Which brings me finally to the sixth principle, plan to reassess. As the year-mark (or whatever month mark to which you’ve budgeted) approaches, reassess. Are you making the amount of money you need to be making? Do you like the work you’re doing? Are you happy? The second two questions are entirely personal, but in terms of making the amount of money you need to be making, I figured out pretty quickly that even with my two permalance jobs, my out-of-the-box seasonal admissions work, and my work for private clients, I wasn’t going to be matching the salary I’d left behind with my full-time employer through freelance work alone. For year one, this was fine because of my budget and savings. For the two years ahead, this was still going to be okay because in addition to my editorial work, I also sold two books—the first half of my “write and edit full-time” plan. Within a few months, I knew what my advance would be and when (ballpark) I could expect those payments. I was able to adjust my budget accordingly. So between the book income and the editing work, my one-year plan became a three-year plan, with good long-term prospects.

The one year anniversary take-away?

I know now that, as a freelance editor, matching the salary I left behind would necessitate working full-time as a freelance editor. Not three-quarters-time balanced with writing, but full-time and probably realistically more than full-time. And if you want to be a full-time freelance editor, that’s perfectly fine, but if your goal is to balance that editorial work with your writing, as mine is, there probably aren’t enough hours in the day, at competitive freelance rates, for you to do as much editing as you’d need to in order to make a salary that you’d consider livable. (This of course depends in part on the cost of living where you are, what you consider a livable salary, etc. I’m in NYC, so my cost of living is high, and that’s something I personally have to take into account. YMMV.)

I know also that book income will necessarily be a key part of my long-term financial plan. This doesn’t mean I’m going to get a two-book deal every year. Of course not. It means I need to budget so that the income I do bring in from writing stretches to years I don’t sell a book, and that I need to continue to be scheduled and meticulous about my writing time, prioritizing it along with my editing. It also means that in the future, I may need to apply rule number three—be open to possibilities—to my writing as well as my editing by taking on write-for-hire or ghostwriting projects or other paying opportunities in addition to my credited work. I’m fine with this, because getting back to my earlier questions, I love the work I’m doing—both as a writer and an editor—and I’ve never been happier.

I hope the advice here resonates, and that you find it useful. Of course, making the transition to self-employment is just the beginning. Your continued success as a freelancer will be contingent upon a number of factors, including your ability to develop good client relationships, your capacity to effectively get the word out about your business, and your facility for managing logistics such as contracts and payout schedules. I certainly advise speaking to other freelancers within your network about how they manage these aspects of running a small business before you begin. Arm yourself with knowledge, resources, and a plan. Finally, know that luck also plays a role, in addition to, or despite of, all your strategizing. There’s no way to prepare for that particular X-factor, but it’s good to remind yourself that good or bad, luck is also in the mix.

Dream big. Plan big. And keep your eyes open.