John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Editors as entrepreneurs

In twenty-eight semesters of teaching editing, I have been lucky to encounter students who grasped the importance of the craft and showed a gift for it. Today I am pleased to present a guest post from one of those students, Michael Bullwinkle, who, aware of the crisis in editing and the plight of editors turned out of employment, suggests some fresh directions. Editors, particularly copy editors, have not, as a class, been notable for the entrepreneurial impulse, but perhaps Mr. Bullwinkle’s friendly suggestions will stimulate them.

Mr. Bullwinkle:

When I think of editing and the general lack of it that is present on the Internet, I can’t help but remember the opening lines of a TED talk given in 2008 by Benjamin Zander on the state of classical music:

Probably a lot of you know the story of the two salesmen who went down to Africa in the 1900s. They were sent down to find if there was any opportunity for selling shoes. And they wrote telegrams back to Manchester. And one of them wrote: “Situation hopeless. Stop. They don't wear shoes.” And the other one wrote: “Glorious opportunity. They don't have any shoes yet.”

I think the classical model of copy editors employed with benefits within an organization is indeed something of a dying breed. However, as outsourcing becomes more and more popular, it is quite clear that there is still an incredible value to the service native-speaking copy editors provide.

What I wonder is if perhaps one could take the basic model of these overseas copy-editing establishments and set up a similar little agency of native-speaking editors in the United States. To start, all you would need is a loosely connected group of work-at-home freelancers who had a common website and e-mail and divided up the editing accordingly. Billing could be done based on number of pages edited or specific contracts depending on customers’ needs.

The real question is, of course, how you actually get customers, since no one, even the more language-minded among us, will actually go out of our way to seek out the paid services of a copy editor.

I think the only way this idea has even the slightest chance to succeed is to target Internet-based content and to very selectively start auditing various websites. Mine them for errors, grammatical, legal, unintentionally embarrassing content, etc. Tally the results and send a nice little e-mail report not too many pages in length to the company, pointing out all of the potential issues that might be prevented if they paid a nominal fee for having their posts professionally screened by your agency.

Unfortunately, you would probably have to engage in this exercise a number of times before anyone was interested and paid any money, and selecting which type or size of sites would represent the greatest potential for becoming customers would be an interesting game of trial-and-error research. This also means you will at least initially be working for free with only the hope of maybe getting customers. But theoretically, if you could build a large enough client base, you could charge an exceedingly low rate per article/page to be edited and still make a profit worthy of your time based on the large number of pages that can be edited in a single day.

Another place to look for business might be in the professional blog sphere. While there are not a huge number of them, there are at least a couple of hundred blogs that serve as the sole source of income for their authors. These highly successful bloggers do quite well for themselves, and if you presented them with a similar report of the various errors, potential legal missteps, etc., that appear on their blogs, they might be willing to pay a small fee to have each post screened by a professional editor. Many of these bloggers have a fairly firm understanding of the concept of time and image as money, and professional editing might help them with both of these things. This would serve two purposes — one, it is another paying customer; two, it gives you a chance to clean up the crap that appears on the Web.

You could also offer free editing for a month to a few key highly successful bloggers (high page-view count) in exchange for a plug on their site linking to your editing agency’s site, and the chance that they might become your customer in the future.
Eventually, if you could actually get a successful brand going, you could have a symbol like the little VeriSign security symbols that subscribers to your service could post on their site. For a low cost they would have an insignia to remind their readers that the information on their site is professionally edited, or even fact-checked.


  1. Another source would be higher education. I have a friend who freelances as a copy editor. One of her best clients is a prof for whom English is a second language. She cleans up his papers before he submits them. I've done this (for free) for my Chinese students applying to graduate school in the United States.

  2. I'm in. Mr. Bullwinkle makes some excellent points. There are many sites that purport to serve as liaisons between freelance writers and editors and those who require those services, but they almost universally offer frustratingly poor pay. I've signed up for several and I routinely ignore them all. Perhaps this is a model that will work, but not when short-timers accept $4 a page and those hiring consider that reasonable.

  3. Cordell BlankenshipJanuary 5, 2010 at 10:46 AM

    To my knowledge (and according to my bank account) this enterprise is already thriving all over the Internet. That's not to say you guys are late to the party, but please avoid representing this model as some sort of breakthrough idea. It's not for the hobbyist or the faint of heart. But, yes, freelance editing is one of those Net-friendly transferable skills...Call the newspapers. Er, on second thought, maybe not.

  4. Give the kid an A.

  5. SeƱor Cardamom EstopherJanuary 5, 2010 at 8:43 PM

    The kid's name is Bullwinkle, fer St. Pete's sake.
    He gets a pass on the obvious--and an A+.

  6. I think the new idea is not so much freelance copy-editing over the Internet, but having a guild to certify professionals.

  7. Michael BullwinkleJanuary 6, 2010 at 2:28 AM

    Two thoughts:

    I. Sadly I am a former student, and as I recall I received an A-.

    II. In response to CB:

    I think a useful analogy would be to the professional tutoring industry. While there are certainly many private or “freelance” tutors who make a very good living doing so. When someone is looking for a tutor they are far more likely to be drawn to the services of Kaplan or The Princeton Review. A lone freelancer is forced to rely on word of mouth, and seek out clients on their own time.

    If a group of editors could establish a company with the same level of brand recognition as a Kaplan or The Princeton Review. They could make a fortune. The ideas above are more of a first phase to establish market viability. Later goals would be things like partnering with web developers to have an online infrastructure for seamless submission, billing, and distribution of content from clients.

    Imagine a plug-in that clients could install on any WordPress site that has a button to submit to your organization right next to the preview button. With one click a client could send out a post for review, be billed automatically, have their submission directed to the appropriate editor, and 2-3 hours later have an edited copy waiting for them.

    Freelancing in any industry is certainly lucrative for some, but the idea is that if editors banded together, you might be even more successful.

  8. This is a great post, but I'm afraid my latent nitpick proofreading tendencies are surfacing.

    Michael, you have two sentence fragments masquerading as sentences. That A- might be in jeopardy.

    John, the URL for this article contains a spelling error.

    No charge for this service, by the way. :)

  9. Pam Robinson has some characteristically thoughtful reponses to this post. Well worth a look:

  10. Cordell BlankenshipJanuary 6, 2010 at 9:20 AM

    "When someone is looking for a tutor they are far more likely to be drawn to the services of Kaplan or The Princeton Review."

    Says who? Most people will turn to a trusted neighbor or colleague and say "Know any good tutors?" Or, they go online and do a reasonably informed search. I think most people assume the corporate source is going to be more expensive--which it is.

    The whole point of businesses' hiring freelancers is so they can negotiate rates. A "guild" or syndicate of Internet editors presumably would have a fixed rate card that would have to take into consideration overhead, salaries to members, benefits, upkeep of its Internet resources, taxes, etc. Too many moving parts gets expensive.

    And, as some of this site's regulars can tell you, expensive means "the first thing management will look to cut, downsize, right size, eliminate."

    Why automatically pay more for a service you can get cheaper with a phone call to the contractor? The trick is to stay small, mobile, flexible, affordable--and under the radar.

  11. Coming late to the party here. An organization would be a good idea, but I'm curious about your plan for sending reports to high-earning blogs. The blogger could very easily point out that they're earning a tidy income despite grammatical issues, so why would they need your services? You're not able to prove that their income would be higher after employing the group's services.