I had been in New York City for less than three months when I decided to start my freelancing business. The tumultuous events leading up to my decision included: enrolling in an expensive graduate school for a Masters degree in Publishing, something that I believed I needed to be successful in my field and my sole reason for moving to the city from my rural hometown in North Carolina; desperately applying to, interviewing for, and finally being awarded two editorial internships, each of which paid minimum wage ($12 per hour at the time); adding up my debt to discover I owed a total of about $30,000; eating fifty-cent packs of noodles for dinner every night; applying to, interviewing for, and finally being awarded a full-time job with a Big 5 publisher; quitting both internships; and — most importantly — having a very honest conversation with one of my professors at the aforementioned expensive graduate school.
The realization that prompted my conversation with said professor was this: I was paying an extraordinary amount—plus interest—to learn about publishing while simultaneously being paid a salary—in exchange for 40 hours of my life every week—to learn about publishing.
So I asked my professor, essentially, “This can't be right, right?”
He replied with some sage advice I don’t remember exactly. It was something along the lines of “In two years, when your classmates have graduated and have their Masters in Publishing, they will use the connections they made in this program to land an entry-level position. And you will already be two years ahead.”
I withdrew from graduate school the next day, before my first semester midterms even started.
But I kept the full-time position, and I immediately started thinking about how I could make more money and pay off my debt. The idea of freelancing — in my case, copy editing and proofreading for other book publishing companies — occurred to me not long after. The problem was that I had no experience, no official training, no prospects, and no clue where to start. It was clearly a hopeless endeavor.
Eventually, I stopped wallowing and realized I had stepped off the standard path to success and had to make my own way. Here’s how I did it.
1. I resolved to make the absolute most of my current position in the industry. I went into absolute sponge-mode. I absorbed everything I could, asked questions, and offered to do work outside my job description to gain practice doing the tasks that would be my primary focus as a freelancer.
2. I read a lot. Articles about freelancing, copy editing, and proofreading; books about being an entrepreneur; tutorials about setting up a website and using tools like Adobe Acrobat to review and mark up PDFs — nothing was off limits.
3. I swallowed my pride and asked for help. In addition to admitting I’m not a genius and asking questions during my 9–5 workday, I also asked for help specifically about freelancing. Who did I ask? Most embarrassingly, my former employer. I reached out with a friendly hello and update, admitted that I could use any extra income I could find, and asked if they had any freelancing opportunities available. Then, I asked for feedback on my work.
4. I offered my services for little—if any—money. I wrote a little description about my services and posted it on Craigslist and Upwork. I copy edited and proofread resumes, cover letters, literally anything, for, well, literally anything. Did I particularly enjoy this work? Absolutely not. But it helped me practice communication, working solo, organization, and, of course, copy editing and proofreading.
Today, I run a successful freelance copy editing and proofreading business and work regularly with established publishing companies all over the United States. I’ve defined and narrowed my scope and work primarily on books that I enjoy working on (and reading!). I don’t work with individuals anymore, and the only resume I ever read and update is my own. I paid off my debt, and no one ever asks me if I have a graduate degree.
If you’re just entering the workforce or just getting into freelancing or absolutely terrified and unsure what to do, remember that there’s always another way to do things. You don’t (necessarily) need the degree, the expensive training, or anything else your industry touts as necessary.* If you feel stuck, or if you’ve convinced yourself that the only way to be successful is to go into ridiculous amounts of debt for a degree or certification, I beg you to pause, take a deep breath, and give yourself time to find another option. There’s always another way.
*This obviously depends on your industry. If you’re planning to be a doctor, for instance, you will definitely need the training. Please don’t bypass med school.