On Professional Editing and Why I Charge My Friends For Advice

say_it_simply“Oh my God, I just don’t understand how you possibly find time to write!”

People say that to me all the time.

Everyone I know is a “writer,” only most people I know are not writing full-time for a living.

Only completely insane people (like me) or fantastically successful people (like Anne Lamott) do that. Everyone else is smart and holds onto his day job.

If I don’t write my family doesn’t eat (my husband is also a writer and mostly a stay-at-home dad.)

As a full-time professional writer, I am, of course, a small business owner. Writing is my business. My writing business has three income streams:

1) Magazine, newspaper, and on-line work
2) Books (you can see the spines and click on the five I’ve written from my website’s homepage)
3) Consulting

I also get paid to give talks, run workshops, and do other public speaking gigs.

For my editing and consulting practice, I work with a very small group of very successful writers.

I help them organize their writing. I edit. I give them suggestions for where to sell ideas. I help them write book proposals. I coach them on the best way to find the best agent (yes, you really need one). I talk through career goals with them. I help them hone their craft.

My clients who already have book contracts use me both for editing and accountability. As every writer knows, it helps to have a deadline. A book is a big project and often book editors at the publishing company want to see the whole manuscript once it’s finished and not read it piecemeal as it’s being written.

Even the best writers need good editors. I sometimes worry I’m a better editor than a writer. I often can do for someone else what I can’t do for myself. I find myself wishing I could hire myself.

It’s very expensive to hire me. I charge a hefty hourly rate (more for businesses than for individuals). It’s also very difficult. I don’t advertise and I turn down 95 percent of the writers who contact me.

You read that right. I turn down the vast majority of the people who would like to hire me.


Because I only have a finite amount of brain power every day and if I am using my best brain to edit someone else’s writing that means I’m not using it on my own writing.

So I only work with highly successful highly motivated writers and I expect great things from them. You can’t hire me if you are only dabbling or if you want someone to tell you how great you are. You can only hire me if you are willing to succeed. And you can only hire me if you are going to be so successful that you make back my ridiculously high hourly fees and then some.

But highly successful highly motivated writers don’t need editors, you’re thinking.

Ah, but they do!

In fact, part of the reason they are so successful and so motivated is because they are savvy about surrounding themselves with and hiring successful, motivated people. If you hire a mediocre editor who charges less money, chances are your work will remain, well, mediocre. And that you will earn less money for it.

When I was in junior high and my parents had recently divorced my father’s new girlfriend decided we needed to go to a family therapist. The first thing the therapist told us was that her goal was to work herself out of a job. I loved her right away, makeup and New York accent and all. She didn’t want anyone to dwell on what was wrong, she wanted to give us all the tools and the motivation to make things right.

I tell my clients something similar. My goal is not for them to become dependent on me while I milk them for money but to give them the tools they need to make the money they need to afford to hire me. It’s a win-win situation. From mindbogglingly high book advances to breaking into the New Yorker, my clients are very successful. Often more successful than I am. They would be anyway, of course, without me. I can’t really take any credit. But it is also true that when you pay someone a lot of money you are much more apt to follow their advice. And though I sometimes don’t follow it myself (bad, Jennifer, bad) and it sounds enormously pompous to say so, it is also true that when clients follow my advice (which often involves moving out of their comfort zone and doing something they desperately don’t want to do, like flying to New York City and having coffee or lunch with an editor or not deciding on an agent until they have gotten close enough to smell at least three), it works.

I used to be happy to spend an hour consulting with writer friends who needed advice. For free. Or for food. I almost never do that anymore.

(Yesterday was an exception, the first in over a year. Yesterday my friend Angela Decker who has a book of poetry coming out soon bought me a smoothie and a salad and I coached her on using social media, like Pinterest and Facebook, as platforms to promote her new book, Splendid Catastrophe.)

If you want my advice you have to pay for it. Why? Because when people who don’t pay me ask for my advice and I tell them something they don’t want to hear they don’t listen. And then they fail. Because I was right. And then we’ve both wasted our time. Besides, I don’t like to listen to myself talk. I like to see people succeed.

I am frugal by nature and tend to be even more careful with other people’s money. I work as quickly and efficiently as I can. If you take me out for dinner chances are I will order the least expensive dish on the menu and one glass only of the house wine. (I make a living as a writer, I have four children. We rarely dine out.) But sometimes a job takes longer than I anticipate, despite my best intentions. The brain is a complicated organ and I can’t always force myself to work as fast as I would like to.

I recently invoiced for some work that took longer than I expected. It wasn’t a big invoice but I still felt a little guilty when I emailed my client the bill.

“Worth every penny!” He emailed me back within five minutes. “You are a miracle worker.”

Here’s to all my clients being that happy in 2014.

p.s. You are welcome to contact me if you are looking for an editor. I can refer you to some good ones. I am not currently accepting any new clients.

p.p.s. A golden rule for every writer, writer-to-be, and high school senior who’s afraid to apply to a top tier school: you can’t get rejected if you don’t ever try. You can’t get accepted either.


Jennifer Margulis, author of The Business of Baby and four other booksJennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University and author of The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby BEFORE Their Bottom Line. She has worked on a child survival campaign in Niger, West Africa; taught postcolonial literature in inner city Atlanta; and appeared live on prime-time TV in Paris, France. Jennifer was the recipient of a Fulbright Award in 2006-2007  and her writing has won several awards. The Business of Baby is a finalist for a BOOKS FOR A BETTER LIFE AWARD, along with Temple Grandin’s The Autistic Brain, Anne Lamott’s Stitches, and Katy Butler’s Knocking On Heaven’s Door. Winners will be announced at an award ceremony in New York City on March 10, 2014.

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Categories: on writing.


  1. One of the biggest hurdles freelance writers/editors need to get over is accepting the idea that our skills are *worth* something, that NOT “anyone can do this.” If anyone could do it, why are they asking for your help in the first place? Plumbing is a skill. Baking fancy cakes is a skill. Writing is a skill. People value — and seek out — people whose skills they require. Having a firm grasp of the business end of your writing career is a crucial first step toward making that career viable. (Here’s where I pause to worry that I’ve let a grammatical error or misspelling slip by in this post, thereby destroying the illusion that I am, in fact, a good writer/editor…)
    Holly Smith recently posted…Chicken Soup for the Pedophile’s SoulMy Profile

  2. You know, people have asked me for advice and offered to pay me for it, and I’ve pooh-poohed that if they are my friends, but in this light it now feels like I’ve done them a disservice. I, too, get that guilty feeling if a job takes me too long, and then I take even longer to invoice, waiting until I feel like I’ve done enough work to deserve the pay, when in reality I’ve probably done double the agreement.


    This is the thing I will take away: “The brain is a complicated organ and I can’t always force myself to work as fast as I would like to.” I really connected with this post, and I’m delighted to have discovered you. Thank you.

    • Whitney Moss — that was me. The anthology I co-wrote and edited, “Toddler: Real-Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love” (Seal Press), was a bestseller at Diesel Books for several weeks when it first came out. And when I was last in Oakland they had already sold the copies they ordered of The Business of Baby. I love independent bookstores and appreciate the way they support writers! And do my best to buy my books from them as well (though sometimes it’s painful since the Amazon prices are often so much better. But how many readings/community events has Amazon hosted lately? 0. Whereas our local bookstore, Bloomsbury Books, hosts several every month!)
      Jennifer Margulis recently posted…Biggest Parenting News Stories of 2013 (The Ones You Haven’t Heard)My Profile

  3. Part of the reason good freelance editors like you, have become so valuable is that editors at major houses are not catching stuff that really should be cut from a manuscript. I cannot give examples, but I see this all the time. The latest book I read was Lee Smith’s Guests on Earth. I found the word “beloved” in two paragraphs running. I know, you are not talking about copy editing, but I think the whole profession has suffered over the past few years with the industry laying off people. Okay, so now I want to know whether you edit only non-fiction???

    • I think you are right, Alexandra. Editor positions at big publishing companies are being cut, editors are more swamped than ever, and I also get the impression that a lot of what freelance editors like me do used to be done by in-house editors. The majority of the editing I do is non-fiction but I also edit fiction.
      Jennifer Margulis recently posted…Making Facebook MemesMy Profile

  4. Jennifer I think you should charge for consulting! If you don’t value your time why would anyone else? I am currently a senior in college working to obtain my BA in Journalism and Mass Communications and I have set a goal to make enough money writing before I leave college to pay my regular bills and my school loans. Mind you, my regular bills are small because my husband and I are already a pair of penny pinchers! I think you should continue with your goals and feel good about telling people “yes I charge.. why? Because my advice is valuable!” Thank you for sharing your wonderful thoughts on this topic! -Kayla

  5. Jennifer, I’m tucking you away as a resource to accompany my bucket list. I will be publishing / copyrighting a book of my poetry within the next ehh… 6 years. If nothing changes, I will need some expertise in this department. BTW, your bio is nothing short of amazing and I’m honored to ‘know’ you! Be (stay) well, Jessica
    Jessica @ConveyAWareness recently posted…How to Make Chili Like a BossMy Profile

  6. Thank you for the reminder about valuing our writing time. I also edit and ghostwrite for others, and it can be easy to let that work take precedence over my own. It’s all about balance, right? I finally learned that if I charge good rates for my services, both the client and I will more greatly value that time spent…and I will have the time to do my own work! Bonus: wordsmithing in any capacity–with the words of others or my own–makes all involved better writers.

  7. Thanks for such hard-talking about editing and money. As I go back to freelancing after 4 years teaching, I am struck by how many projects people are asking me to help with pro bono. I just moved and doing some community volunteer work is a great way to connect to our new community, but your strong words are welcome reminder to be clear about my profession and what it costs to hire me.

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