How I made almost $50K freelancing in 2019

The 1099s are rolling in, and it’s time to face the taxman. Taxwoman. Taxperson. I still haven’t figured out how best to navigate taxes when it comes to self-employment income that rivals my W2 salary, but I’m getting there. At any rate, several years ago, I thought, “if I could just make an extra ten grand a year…”

And here we are. $37,969.98 from one company, $10,344.70 from another, and bits and pieces here and there bring me up to about $50K.

My side hustle is freelance copy editing. Basically, I take other people’s work and make sure the commas are in the right place and the sources are all listed in the bibliography and there aren’t any sentence fragments. That’s it! I started copy editing my peers’ work in elementary school (trying to make friends, duh), but only realized there was money in it about five years ago.

If you are looking to get started with this type of work, here is what I suggest:

1) Get good at it. People have asked me if I have certifications, and I don’t. There may be courses out there – I can’t say because that’s not the path I took. I got good at it by practicing. Helping Charlie Miller with his English assignment in 5th grade didn’t get him to kiss me, but it did get me $50k a year later in life. I did not know it at the time, but I prefer the money. He was very cute, though.

I helped out friends, I worked for minimum wage for a small-town newspaper, copy editing content. In graduate school, I offered to read my friends’ dissertations over.

What I’ve found is that the big market for copy editing comes from people who are not native speakers of English and want to publish native-sounding English articles. For this reason, having a lot of practice with non-native English speakers, a thorough understanding of the typical styles used in academic work, and an ability to use/fix high-level language is critical.

If you are already good at it, move to step 2.

2) Be willing to do work for free or cheap. This pains me a bit because it sounds ridiculous – you should value your own work! But for me, the years of doing work for free set everything in motion. I was (and am) the person friends turn to when they just want another pair of eyes on their resume before they apply for the job, an informed opinion on a blog post they are about to publish.

This is slow and painful (although I enjoy being a person who is helpful, which is why I still often offer free services for friends), but it gave me a wealth of experience. It also started up networking, which I despise doing, without being all network-y.

Because favors for friends turned into recommendations for their friends, who paid. It also led me to a job application (a friend’s friend worked at a publishing company and was looking for copy editors. My friend told me about it, I applied. I have been working for them for five years now; the 1099 just came in, this is the company where I made about $10K last year). And after I worked on a friend’s dissertation, she recommended me to her friend, who paid me to work on her dissertation but also then got a job at a place that needs occasional copy editors. It’s not a huge source of income, but I make about $500 per project with them, once or twice a year. And that got me recommended me to another guy, who occasionally funnels work my way.

3) Be good, be consistent, be professional, courteous, and responsible. With freelancing, people don’t necessarily get to know you as the woman who always brings in donuts on Fridays or the person you can count on to make hilarious jokes at meetings. They know you only by your work, and if you do excellent work, you are more likely to get more work.

4) Apply online. I recommend doing this only after you have honed your skills, but you could skip to this step immediately if you want. There’s no harm in applying. Every job that I’ve gotten has included a copy editing test, so if you haven’t honed your skills, applying may be a waste of time.

The bulk of my work comes from a company called Editage. I wrote a review for them here, and in 2019, I made over $39K with them. I’ve recommended them to several people; some have passed their test, some have not (it’s corny, but I’ve come to think of copy editing as an art – so the tests can be subjective). Editage specializes in academic papers by non-native speakers of English, so having an advanced degree is helpful and maybe required. I’ve also done a little digging and found this list, which seems to be legitimate and has a bunch of different options.

Being a native speaker of English in a world where English is in high demand gives you an automatic leg up. The trick is in perfecting those skills and finding places to apply them.

This side hustle of mine is not passive income, by any stretch of the imagination. I work early mornings and late nights, long weekend days, in parking lots and waiting rooms. But it has provided us with desperately needed leeway, and actually, I’d rather be reading about ancient ruins in the waiting room than staring at the wall, so it works out just fine.

TL/DR: hone skills, apply, hone skills, apply. The work is out there.

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