Wanna work in your PJs? Then be good

It happens to the best of us.

People learn how we make a living, and they think they'd like to earn money in their jammies too. So they ask us if they can pick our brains. Or they want us to refer work to them because they are really good at noticing typos on restaurant menus.

Hey, we're busy! We haven't got time for all that brain-picking! And we're not going to refer work because someone finds mistakes on menus.

But here's the thing. I made a strong start in freelancing because colleagues let me pick their brains and referred work to me.

So I'm interested in passing on that gift. With one initial caveat.

You gotta be good.

First, study

If you're new to freelancing and you don't yet have a portfolio that demonstrates your skill, then to productively bend a skilled freelancer's ear, you must be willing to get good.

What it takes to get good depends on what you'd like to do as a freelancer. For example, freelance book editing and indexing require some book study up front. So when people tell me they'd like to get into editing or indexing, I give them them an assignment.

For editing, I tell them to read Amy Einsohn's The Copyeditor's Handbook and do the exercises, then to talk to me when they're done. For indexing, I assign Nancy Mulvany's Indexing Books and tell them that professional indexing requires investment in indexing software (I like SKY). If they read Mulvany and are still interested, we should talk.

How I got good

I entered the freelance world as a book editor. It all started when a new friend and I were watching our daughters play and talking about how we could contribute to the family income while being home to raise our kids.

I said, "You know what I've always thought would be fun? I've never told anyone this because it sounds weird, but I think I would love proofreading books. I doubt if you could do that from home though."

My new friend, whom I so far knew only as another mother, completely surprised me: "Sure you can! I have a manuscript I'm editing right upstairs." Turns out, she was working from home part-time for her former employer, a book publisher.

She agreed to mentor me if I first completed an assignment: I was to read several specific chapters in the Chicago Manual of Style, then skim the rest so I would know my way around that enormous tome. Then I should come back to her.

I did exactly as she said. I demonstrated my seriousness by showing her that I intended to be good.

So we took the next step. She gave me some unedited pages and told me to edit them, then we sat down and went over my work. When she was satisfied that I knew what I was doing, she gave me the name and phone number for a managing editor at the press where she worked. That press administered tests to prospective freelancers (many do), so I took the test, and the editor was very happy with my performance.

I took that favorable reaction as my unofficial certificate in editing and began cold-calling local publishers until I landed my first project.

At that point, I was good but raw. I had a lot more to learn. Fortunately, with that first assignment came a wonderful mentoring relationship.

Which brings us to another recipe for the feast, a great topic for a future post: Keep learning.