­Starting out as an editorial professional: Should you specialise?


So you’re serious about pursuing a career as a freelance proofreader or editor. You’ve done some industry-recognised training, or you’re in the process of doing it. Now it’s time to get down to some market research, and if you’re serious about this, too, it won’t be long before you realise that you’re entering a highly competitive field full of newbies like you as well as seasoned pros.

As many established editorial professionals will tell you, there’s plenty of work out there. But unless you’re very lucky, you’re going to have to do some work to find it – or rather, for it to find you. So first you need to find a way to stand out from the crowd. This is where the concept of establishing a ‘brand’ comes in, which is good to do even if you’re trading under your own name. And one of the most important decisions you will face during this process is whether you should specialise, and if so, to what extent. What does that mean?

When you start to dig deeper, it soon becomes clear that there are several different layers to specialisation. Also, it’s not something that you should consider once, when you’re just starting out on your new career. It’s a topic you’ll want to come back to as you develop your business strategy. If your marketing efforts seem to be falling flat, focusing on one specialism or more could give you your USP. And if you’re up and running but wanting a new challenge or change of direction, offering a new skill could be the springboard you’re looking for.

You can start by asking yourself some questions. Do I want to work exclusively with fiction or non-fiction? If I’m aiming to become a fiction editor, do I have the necessary training? Should I offer developmental editing or manuscript critique as well as copy-editing and proofreading? Are there genres that particularly interest me? How many of my fiction editor colleagues specialise in romance, fantasy, crime, young adult or whatever I’d be most happy working with? If I choose just one or two genres, will I find this limits the work I can attract? Or can I gain enough knowledge, training and experience to position myself as an expert? And do I know how to market myself so that I reach those romance/fantasy/crime/YA authors looking for an editor who’s a perfect fit?

When specialising in fiction genres, it goes without saying that it helps if you enjoy reading and have considerable experience of whichever you opt for. Of course, you don’t have to decide to specialise when you start out. You can begin as broad as you’re comfortable with. As you build your portfolio, your specialist genre/s may begin to emerge naturally. Then you can use your successes to boost your profile as the go-to editor for steampunk/medical thrillers/urban fiction when advertising your services on your website, social media or any other platform you favour.

Non-fiction also offers plenty of opportunities to stand out by specialising. To start with, take a look at what you already have to offer potential clients. Perhaps you have a background in law, or hospitality, or medicine, or fashion. You can bring that valuable insider experience to your new editorial career and target businesses and organisations within your sector of expertise. Being familiar with industry-specific terminology and quirks of language benefits both the client (you’re a safe pair of hands) and you (you can work confidently and be time-efficient as you won’t need to keep stopping and checking words and turns of phrase that other editors might not have come across).

But you don’t have to limit yourself to your professional experience when thinking what you can offer as a specialism. When you’re not working or planning your next business move, what do you like doing? If you love cookery, chances are you’d be the perfect editor for spotting a mistake in a recipe book or on a menu. Or perhaps your passion is archaeology, or gardening, or sustainable living – whether you’re targeting publishers or non-publishing clients, your interests come with a skillset that you can promote and use to your advantage.

Just beware of becoming too niche – as with fiction, perhaps even more so with non-fiction, it’s probably better to keep your options open, initially at least, unless you’re confident that you can earn your desired income from working exclusively with texts that fall within a single category or two. Many editors and proofreaders offer several specialisms, which may or may not be related.

As well as highlighting your specialisms on your website or social media platforms, a powerful tool for being matched with clients looking for similar skills is to take out a directory entry. Sites like FindaProofreader and FreelancersintheUK, which are open to all business owners, have a keyword facility that allows you to list your specialisms so that you’re more easily findable for potential clients entering specific search terms. Likewise, if you’re a Professional or Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, you can take out an entry in the SfEP Directory, which also uses keywords to help clients find the editorial professionals that match their requirements.

So there’s plenty to think about, now and in the future. As you gain more practical experience, especially working with a range of texts, you’ll develop new skills that could end up as a specialism. Everyone can be an expert at something if they want to be!