Six Copy Editing Tips for Freelance Writers

by John Soares on April 10, 2014

You need your freelance writing to be professional so that clients pay you well. This means your words read well and contain no major grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors.

Freelance writers with poor copy editing skills either don’t make much money or they don’t make any money at all.

First up…

1. Improve Your Writing Skills

strunk-white-elements-of-style-fourth-editionThe better you write, the less editing you’ll need.  Review rules of grammar, punctuation, and style frequently so that you are constantly upgrading your writing chops. Even 15 minutes a week makes a big difference over the long run.

See the books I recommend over on my Success Resources page.

2. Use the Spell Checker

Microsoft Word and other major word processing programs have a spell checker. Use it, but use it wisely. Some words have multiple acceptable spellings, and some spell checkers can flag certain variations as incorrect even though they aren’t.

And don’t rely on the spell checker to catch all of your misspelled words. For example, if you type “wit” instead of “with,” the spell checker will zoom right past it.

3. Use the Grammar Checker

Word and other programs and services will also check your grammar, but overall grammar checkers are more problematic than spell checkers. I’ve found that they frequently make erroneous suggestions, so examine every suggestion carefully. However, despite their limitations, they will catch important mistakes.

4. Copy Edit Your Own Writing

Get good at editing your own writing. Don’t expect others to correct your mistakes. Here are 5 tips:

  • Be consistent with formatting.
  • Be consistent with how you apply spelling options, and also grammar and usage rules.
  • Use a standard reference guide such as the Chicago Style Manual.
  • Do the final edit on a printout of your manuscript rather than on the computer, unless you are truly comfortable reading and editing words on the screen.
  • Read your writing out loud. Not only will this help you catch errors, it will also improve your writing style.

5. Hire a Freelance Copy Editor

If necessary, hire a professional. Here are some resources:

6. Exchange with Other Writers

If you have a high level of copy editing skill, approach other writers with similar skills and set up an exchange system: you edit their manuscripts and they edit yours. I did this several times with my brother Eric Soares and it worked very well.


1. Devote time every week, even if it’s just 15 minutes, to improving your knowledge of grammar, punctuation, and style.

2. Create a list of fellow writers with whom you could potentially exchange manuscripts. Start with writer’s groups in your local area. You can also find writers through blogs, LinkedIn, online communities, and other venues.

3. See more advice on editing here and here.

4. Decide whether or not you should edit as you write.

Your Take

How confident are you in your copy editing skills? Any suggestions to add? Do you ever hire a professional?

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Susan April 10, 2014 at 8:13 AM

Don’t forget time as a good editing tool. Let your work rest by waiting until the next day to edit. Then, mentally put yourself in editor mode—look at the piece as if you were editing the work of someone else.


2 John Soares April 10, 2014 at 8:55 AM

Very good tip Susan! I give my writing at least a day before I edit whenever possible.
John Soares recently posted…How I Chose My Freelance Writing Niches


3 Cathy Miller April 10, 2014 at 8:26 AM

As much as I hate the phrase as you get older as you get older ( or more accurately) as I get older, my copy editing deteriorates.

I used to be one of those disgusting people who never missed a single typo or grammatical error. I’ve also noticed that doing them in the first place has gotten worse. I gasp at some I have found in my drafts.

Like Susan mentioned, the biggest help for me is letting my work marinate. I come back to it when I am fresh and can gasp with accuracy at my errors. 😉
Cathy Miller recently posted…LinkedIn Changes to Terms of Service


4 John Soares April 10, 2014 at 8:57 AM

Cathy, I’ve also noticed that my editing skills are slipping slightly as I get older. Scary!

That’s why waiting a day and going over the work multiple times are so important.
John Soares recently posted…8 Time Management Techniques for Successful Writers


5 Georganna Hancock April 10, 2014 at 8:41 AM

Great round-up of tips, John.

As a professional editor I’ve always counseled writers to DIY edit only after revisions are finished. It saves time and effort and makes for more coherent and cohesive writing.


6 John Soares April 10, 2014 at 8:59 AM

I have a lot of admiration for professional editors. It’s a difficult profession that doesn’t suit my temperament.
John Soares recently posted…How to Align Your Writing Income with Your Career Goals


7 Tom Mangan April 10, 2014 at 9:41 AM

Also: Track Changes is a teaching tool, not a torture device (though most times it’s hard to tell the difference).
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8 John Soares April 10, 2014 at 1:49 PM

Tom, I’ve grown to really like (though not love) Track Changes. It is a very useful tool, and I’ve used it many times in recent years.
John Soares recently posted…Why Freelance Writers Often Miss Deadlines


9 Tom Bentley April 10, 2014 at 10:19 AM

Good tips, John. The Word spellchecker has its perils, but its grammar checker is more of a wayward beast—take its advice with a skeptic’s eye. And though most people would rather chew nails than read grammar/usage books, there are many that are absolutely delightful:

Woe Is I – O’Conner
Eats, Shoots and Leaves – Truss
The Transitive Vampire (and others by her) – Gordon

I modeled a style guide I wrote after the relaxed and sometimes goofy tone of these books. They are all great.
Tom Bentley recently posted…Stealing Grandma’s Word Machine


10 John Soares April 10, 2014 at 1:51 PM

Tom, I’ve perused Eats, Shoots and Leaves and really liked it.

And whether we want to or not, we have to study these books, at least if we want to make good money.
John Soares recently posted…When a Freelance Writer Gets Only Silence from an Editor


11 Anne Wayman April 10, 2014 at 4:49 PM

omg… good list. I have a dynamite copy editor I pay for some of my stuff and recommend to clients (email me for contact info).

I literally got into computers back in the day because they’d check my very creative spelling. I don’t trust ’em but they have given me a leg up ever since.

I very occasionally check the grammar word doesn’t like… I would guess out of checking 100 times I’ve changed 1.5 sentences… it really doesn’t match my voice at all.

I don’t marinate, I yeast manuscripts… lol… same thing of course.

I’ve also learned that there is no such thing as a perfect manuscript and have declared my blog a typos accepted blog.
Anne Wayman recently posted…How To Handle Interruptions When You’re Freelance Writing


12 John Soares April 11, 2014 at 8:07 AM

Anne, I use Google Chrome as my browser, and it checks the spelling of everything I type online, which I really appreciate.

I’ve also found that Word grammar checker rarely offers me useful advice, and that’s why I usually have it turned off.
John Soares recently posted…8 Time Management Techniques for Successful Writers


13 Nancy Soares April 15, 2014 at 8:38 AM

One valuable tip I learned from an English Professor of mine is to edit once for spelling only, then grammar, then punctuation (not necessarily in that order). It’s very hard to catch all errors if you try to edit for everything all at once.


14 John Soares April 15, 2014 at 9:02 AM

That sounds like good advice Nancy. I have never specifically tried it, but it sounds like it would actually work well. And I’m sure I’d catch some punctuation errors while checking the grammar, and vice versa.
John Soares recently posted…How I Chose My Freelance Writing Niches


15 Joe Hertvik May 12, 2014 at 9:07 AM

Things that work for me.

Marinating the work, when possible


Slowly reading the work aloud to myself. This forces me to hear what I’m saying as well as reading it. It really helps find awkward construction, overlong sentences, etc. The other advantage of reading it is if you every plan to record the work as a podcast or video, it helps makes sure it performs as well as it reads.
Joe Hertvik recently posted…LinkedIn Search Tip: Getting Found in LinkedIn Even When People Misspell Your Name


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