John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and random topics. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site,, at, 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.