What the freelancer is looking for

Freelancers aren't just a computer screen that takes jobs and returns them. They're professional, skilled people and if you're trying to build a list of suppliers to help you with your work, it helps to understand where they're coming from.

This will be the last in the short run of posts on editor–freelancer relationships. But I couldn’t stop without dwelling briefly on what it’s like to be a freelancer.

Many publishers rely on a group of experienced freelancers to provide most (if not all) of their copyediting and proofreading. At one company I know, one in particular went out of her way to deliver quality and value, and was valued in her turn by the team.

However, a newly arrived editor started to work on a project with her that got into trouble when the manuscript turned out to require far more work than he had expected. The in-house editor ascribed all the blame to the freelancer, and things deteriorated to the point that she refused to take any more work from them. Which deprived the team of one of their most skilled members.

How do I know?

My own experience is fairly typical of many freelancers. I worked in-house for several years, but my employer moved the office to London and I took redundancy rather than move with them. I spent the next six years as a freelancer, doing copyediting, proofreading, training, mentoring and writing for a range of companies.

The other main route into freelancing is to learn the skills using one of a range of courses, and then to try and get work. However, what courses cannot give you is contacts – people who know you and your work, who are willing to trust you with their precious content.

In either case, though, freelancers have some fairly obvious needs that in-house teams seem nonetheless often to forget. Here’s my list of the most important things to me when I was a freelancer.


This is kind of obvious, but it’s the key to understanding how freelancers operate. They’re driven by the need to get work in order to get paid. So, they’re always keen to say Yes to any request.

Learning to say No when you have to is a hard lesson that most learn quickly. Having so much work that you can’t do justice to any more is a good problem to have, but if you let it affect the quality of your work then you won’t get much more.

So, don’t get frustrated when your favourite freelancer refuses to take on your jobs. They’re protecting you, and giving you the confidence that they’ll give you their best when they do agree to work with you.


This is also pretty obvious, but many publishers have a nasty habit of ignoring it. Freelancers require prompt payment because they’re usually working by themselves with no guarantee of regular income. If their invoice sits in your In Tray for a couple of weeks before you process it, that’s a couple of weeks of worry and hardship for them.

Even worse are those publishers who abuse their position in the relationship. Some insist on 45- or even 60-day terms for invoices, which means that the freelancer is waiting a long time before they get their money.

Worst of all are those few that actively appear to bend the rules. I know of one, for example, that treats the stricture ‘Payment due in 30 days’ to mean ‘Payment processing should start after 30 days’.

Just like everyone else, freelancers work because they get paid. Enjoying your job is a benefit (a big one), but payment is key. If you don’t pay them – and pay them promptly, at that – you will find it difficult to retain good suppliers.


Beyond these two basics, though, the big thing I always wanted from a client was respect. This comes through in many ways – honesty, transparency, inclusiveness. This is where the in-house editor in our opening story fell down. By not communicating clearly, he lost the business a valued supplier. By not asking questions, he didn’t find out what he needed in good time. And by treating the freelancer as a ‘black box’ to which files were simply sent for work, he ultimately failed to deliver what his employer needed.

When I was a freelancer myself, many of my clients were journals publishers, and some had a tendency simply to email me a Word file. No note, no explanation, nothing. Other times, I found myself working on an old version of a file and the client hadn’t thought to tell me that it had changed – leading to a lot of extra work and hence extra cost for them, and quite a bit of (private) cursing from me!

It’s not rocket science. Freelancers should be treated as the professionals they are. They’ll stick with you better if you consider them as valuable parts of your team. And you’ll get better work out of them, too.

Posted on 28 Apr 2014
Written by John Pettigrew

Hat wearer, recovering editor and now CEO & Founder of We Are Futureproofs, John Pettigrew has 20 years of experience in educational, illustrated and academic publishing, and a history of successful print and digital product development.