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7 Questions to Ask Potential Clients Before Sending Them a Proposal (tips for freelance editors)

Updated: Jun 4

Over the last six years I’ve met and worked with over 400 hundred freelance editors, in four different countries, in different capacities. A common concern for editors just starting out as freelancers is how to avoid clients “ghosting them” so they can ensure continuity of work, avoiding the feast-or-famine cycle.

Clients magically disappearing will happen at some point in almost every freelance editor’s career. But after it happens, learn from the experience and better prepare yourself: Take concrete actions to set up your business differently to avoid that outcome.  

I tell myself, If this is happening that was probably the wrong type of client for me. So, how do I avoid spending time and energy on a client that is likely to disappear or fall through? How do I filter out clients that aren’t ready for editing, or aren’t willing to pay what I know my services are worth?

I ask questions to get the (potential) client’s cogs turning.

After clients first contact me—and before we move on to a phone consultation to see if we are a good fit for each other— I always ask them these questions. It’s important for me to know that the writer I’m going to work with knows their genre, their target audience, their weaknesses (or a general idea of where they might need help), and if they have budgeted for editing. *Note: I don’t ask traditional publishers these questions because they usually provide this information in the project’s brief.

1. What is your genre?

This tells us if we are a good fit for their project. Editors are not a “one size fits all” (and IMHO they shouldn’t be). Professional editors specialize in certain contents; therefore, it’s imperative that the writer know their genre, and if possible, their subgenre so we know right off the bat if this is an area we’re experienced in and how we can help them.

Reality Check: I’m a nonfiction editor specializing in memoir, how-to books, cookbooks, and Spanish translations or reviews of translations. If someone tells me they need a developmental edit for their new mystery novel, I need to pass (better yet, I need to refer them to someone else). I don’t know the first thing about editing mystery novels, and even if I did read up on how to do it, it’s not in that client’s best interest to hire me. They deserve to work with someone who specializes in mystery, and I look like a caring superstar if I refer them to an editor who does.

2. What is your word count?

Every content, genre or subgenre, has a word count range that your potential client should know. Most memoirs are around 60K to 80K words. Young Adult (YA) books average between 50K and 80K words. Mystery books are about 80K words. Historical fiction books range from 100K to 150K words (think Diana Gabaldon). How-to books average about 40K words (and sometimes even fewer). So, if your writer knows their word count range—of both their manuscript as well as what their genre dictates—this tells you that they’ve done their research and know what publishers and readers are expecting to see. It also means their manuscript will be approximately that length too and hasn’t gone overboard. You can learn more about what genre word counts should be in this post by The Write Life.

Reality Check: Authors have approached me to copyedit memoirs that are 120K words long. While I’m sure they reflect a fascinating life, I’m also very sure no traditional, indie, or hybrid publisher would consider acquiring it unless it’s from a well-known person. That length would be fine for a developmental edit, where the objective would be to not only make suggestions to improve the manuscript but to significantly reduce the word count too. But for a copyedit, I know the author is way off and that we will have to have a tactful discussion about why and how to move forward. Not only do I consider my job as an editor to lift the author’s writing but also to empower them with current publishing market trends that will help them sell their book.

Writer's don't know what they don't know, but we can help them. We can share what we know to strengthen their preparedness.

3. What draft (or version) are you working on?

If the writer is on their first draft, then their work is most likely on its way to becoming a manuscript, but it’s not there yet, and probably not ready for editing either. Second or third drafts tell you that the author knows it can be improved and is actively working to make it better. For book writers or essayists, ask them if they’ve had the manuscript read by their writing group or beta readers. Dissertations or journal articles should have already incorporated professors’ or peer review notes on it as well. If the writer has done this, then their work is probably ready to have editorial eyes look at it.

Reality Check: This year, at a writer’s conference, someone approached me to copyedit their memoir. I asked about the word count, and it was over 100K. The writer stated she didn’t want to trim it down. I asked if it had been reviewed by beta readers, and she said she had shared it with her memoir writing group and got too many suggestions she didn’t like and that she didn’t care about implementing. Those were two red flags back-to-back. I thought, realistically, How long will it take me to prepare a proposal to copyedit this person’s manuscript? (an hour at least) How long will it take me to copyedit a 100K manuscript? (one month, at least) Will the author disagree with all my feedback the way they did with their writing group? (very likely, unless they were in the wrong writing group for them) As much as I appreciate having a full calendar of work, I appreciate much more not having headaches, stress, or dealing with a difficult client who is going to question every suggestion. (I don’t expect a client to agree with all my feedback, but I don’t expect them to disagree with most of them either.) Instead, I would rather fill that time with work I enjoy doing, or clients that I enjoy working with. So, I referred her to the EFA Job List where she could submit a job listing for her project for free and find the right editor for her manuscript and personality.

4. What type of editing do you need?

I don’t expect every potential client (unless they are a publisher) to know exactly what type of editing they need. But, to prevent this a little bit, on my intake questionnaire, I link to my services page for examples they can read about. Hopefully, this will give them an idea of what service they need before moving forward. I also have a link to the EFA’s rate chart so they are aware of what it might cost and not be surprised when they see my proposal. But more on that in point 7, below.

5. Who is your target audience?

This is where more red flags may start popping up. You are not looking for vague answers (e.g., “women everywhere”). The writer needs to be specific. VERY SPECIFIC. Having a clearly defined target audience tells you, the editor, that they’ve done their research and know exactly for whom they’re writing. Which helps you then:

  • easily correct for voice, tone, and style

  • see if the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of reading matches the reading ability of their target audience

  • know the manuscript will match what that genre, or industry, expects

If the potential client doesn’t know, or is too vague, that’s OK too. Remember, our job as editors is to also empower the writer. In this IngramSpark post, Rick Lite explains how to determine who an ideal audience is.

A target audience doesn't mean other people won't read the book. It means the writer knows exactly who they are writing to. If the book receives good reviews, people outside of that target audience will probably read the book too.

6. What other books in your genre are similar to yours?

Likewise, a writer may not know, but your editor’s eyes should be rolling back into your cerebellum when a new client says, “I’m not much of a reader” or “There are no other books out there like mine.” Why? Because this means the writer is not serious about their writing. Generally, if the writer doesn’t read in the genre they are writing for (even as research!), then they probably don’t know their competitive market (other titles like theirs that are available now). In other words, that writer is probably not familiar with the key points they need to hit to keep the reader interested. Some developmental editors like me, who help authors on their publishing journey through author coaching, want to know how our potential client’s book is similar to others, and also, how it is different. I want to make sure the writer has a publishing market awareness. And this is a question an agent, publisher, editorial manager, or acquisitions editor would ask too.

7. Do you have an editing budget?

This is a question some editors are afraid to ask for fear of scaring writers. I don’t expect every potential client to answer “yes,” but I do expect them to start thinking about budgeting for it.

I remind first-time writers that we live in a highly competitive publishing world where everyone can become an author. A professional editor will make sure that book has clean and tidy sentences and that the author’s message is clear and communicates precisely what they meant to say. A good editor will point out weaknesses in the writer’s work and suggest options. You, as a professional editor, will bring up everything the reader might notice.

And a good, reliable editor has trained, studied, knows the genre/industry, and … costs money.

Many first-time writers don’t realize this, and that’s OK. Few know that they should have a budget, and that they should start setting aside funds so that when they’re done with their final draft, they can hire a professional editor to make their work shine. In my questionnaire, I always include the Editorial Freelancers Association median rate chart so they can use it as a guide to know how much, approximately, to budget for. Again, this chart is a baseline, not a final quote.

The 7-question result

At the end of the day, I don’t expect a potential client to have all the right answers to these questions. What I do know is this questionnaire filters out the writers who are not committed enough to their writing to take booking an editor and paying for their work seriously. If this questionnaire intimidates or scares a writer, then they are not the right fit for me, and vice versa. I find it’s better to fill my calendar with clients who know their work, who will be reliable and respectful of my time and appreciate my work ethic, the same way I appreciate theirs. And believe me, those good clients are out there!

These seven questions inform and help populate the proposal I send them. The rest of my onboarding process includes:

  • a 30-minute courtesy consultation to discuss their project

  • a proposal with a timeline and payment schedule

  • if accepted, a detailed contract follows (based on the proposal), outlining the specific work I will do for that project as well as the work I will not do on it

  • a link where they can pay a nonrefundable deposit to get on my calendar (I allow two deferments should they not be ready to start), and the link to pay their project in full before we start (negotiable if needed)

These may seem like a lot of steps to take, but if you have your processes in place, and templates handy, it's a breeze to do. In my personal experience, the likelihood of a client ghosting you when you are making sure to protect yourself and your business becomes pretty minimal to nonexistent.

Fortune favors the prepared mind.—Louis Pasteur

If you enjoyed this article and tips for freelance editors that I mention, and want to continue doing your best work, consider signing up for one of our Networking Courses at The Networking Studio or my tiny newsletter that comes out a few times a year. You’ll be notified when the next post is up, and of tips, tools, books, and classes I think may be of value (“subscriber bar” at the bottom of the page). I promise to never misuse your information!

Linda Ruggeri sitting on a rock jetty at the bach

Linda Ruggeri is a nonfiction bilingual editor and writer based out of Los Angeles. She’s the author of Networking for Writers, and coauthored the award-winning book Networking for Freelance Editors: Practical Strategies for Networking Success with Brittany Dowdle.

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