Building a freelance business is almost impossible without a supportive network and the benefits of word-of-mouth advertising. One freelancer who knows this first-hand is Hannah Hirst-Dunton, literary editor, who started her business in 2011.
After undertaking editing and copy-editing work to make some extra money alongside her DPhil, Hannah found that she no longer wanted to pursue academia. From then, her experience took to a new career where she found who would end up being her first clients. Now, she describes her clients as her friends. This is Hannah’s story…
What is your name, what do you do and where are you based?
My name is Hannah Hirst-Dunton, I’m based in Oxford and I’m a freelance literary editor. I work mainly on children’s literacy titles and teaching materials; children’s trade fiction and (in particular) artwork briefs; also on adult’s fiction, ELT, academic journals and even corporate materials.
How long have you been freelancing and why did you decide to become a freelancer?
I’ve been freelancing since 2011 after I did some proofreading and copy-editing to earn a bit of money during my DPhil. When I realised academia wasn’t what I wanted, I decided not to finish my doctorate and worked in-house for Pearson Education for a year. When the contract ended, I was flattered to find I’d proved myself good enough at what I’d been doing that the people with whom I’d been working kept hiring me to come back on a freelance basis.
That’s the practical reason – at that point, I think I’d considered freelancing to be temporary, and that I’d find a permanent role at some point. The more I looked into it, though, and with more experience of doing in-house work on various projects, I came to realise that I simply didn’t have the mindset to thrive in a corporate environment. I have Asperger’s, and also epilepsy and visual-disturbance issues stemming from a brain haemorrhage I had when I was 19. I can mask and/or mirror fairly successfully, but both practically and ideologically was in my comfort zone only when I was able to control my surroundings. I’ve been to a few interviews when roles looked intriguing, and each one has proved to me how much I didn’t want the job. I think I’ve been incredibly lucky to find colleagues/clients who valued my perspectives and skill set enough to accommodate me – or enable me to accommodate myself.
What support did you have from family and friends? Did anyone advise you against becoming freelance?
There were very few of my immediate friends earning any money except a stipend, at the time, so perhaps it all seemed quite rosy in comparison! I think my family was really just glad someone was paying me for something I enjoyed, although I know my father was quite keen for me to enter the civil service or join a consultancy firm with which I interned, if academia was off the table.
I don’t think I fully appreciated at the time that they may have been worried about my employment potential. I admit it wasn’t a very big risk for me, as I know it is for many; my rather bad luck with health is mediated by good luck financially, so I’ve had the freedom to pursue a career that I find stimulating on its own merits, rather than one that will secure, or gild, my future. So, no: no-one warned me against it, although my partner and I do constantly discuss its sustainability. I do now know a lot of people who haven’t taken to it at all – and it can be a daunting experience, being so self-reliant.
Did you use any professional support resources in starting your freelance business?
None. I wasn’t aware there were any, at the time! I did my research about tracking my finances and my tax situation and created a complicated spreadsheet that tracks and calculates all my income, expenses, allowances and tax owed, so now everything’s very simple.
How would you describe your clients or customers?
Many of them are very good friends. So many of them stem, in one way or another, from my early days at Pearson: I branched out, and so did they – when people moved companies, I’m pleased to say they’ve very often recommended me, and enabled me to grow my list of publishing clients hugely. Others find me online, and several are through recommendations made by other freelancers.
We often work together, and I’ve never considered them competition, so there’s now quite a group of us who recommend each other. That was how my ‘collective’ came about: I formed an umbrella association called Foleo (Freelance Organisation of Literary Editors, Oxford), which is really just an official way for larger clients to reach me alongside a group of publishing freelancers whom I know and respect.
Why do your clients/customers select your over your competitors?
That’s tricky to answer without sounding like a braggart, isn’t it? I assume it’s because they know or have heard I’m good at my job. Recently, I’d heard that I was recommended particularly for being able to work cohesively and consistently across disparate and diverse elements of a project (in this case, including script editing, curriculum knowledge, video editing, image researching and artwork briefing) – which was very gratifying. I assume that comes down to a flexible skill set and thorough assimilation of ideas.
I also adore grammar: this is great for primary literacy, but less great for working with celebrity authors who like to play with their syntax! I have to bite my tongue a lot, and I know some of my pedantry gets filtered out by my employing editors. They’re very forgiving!
Is being a freelancer what you expected? Do you work more hours (or less) than what you had first anticipated?
Both! Even now, I fail to anticipate the wild swings between thinking, ‘Oh my god; I’m never going to work again,’ and, ‘Oh my god; I’m never going to sleep again’! Things tend to even out. I do try not to give myself a hard time if I’m not working a weekday, though, and remember the last time I worked a weekend.
What app or website could you not run your business without and why?
I’ve been sitting thinking about this for a while, now, and to be honest I think I’m going to have to be simplistic and just say Google. I use Gmail, Calendar, Sheets and Drive for everything (contacts, time management, financial planning, PO tracking, archiving…) and the search engine for all my research work, as it recalibrates quickly to what I want during different projects.
There’s a lot that I do use in addition, but I think I could slim it down to that. I have to jump into using whatever platforms the clients use, anyway – and sometimes they’re very clunky – so my own preferences are secondary to theirs.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to start a freelance business, specifically in your field?
- Work hard; prove yourself; be ready for everything.
- Don’t bluff – you should always know what you’re talking about, and you can always learn.
- Not getting work does not indicate your failure as a person; it’s just a job.
What are the most notable things you have learnt since starting your business; either about running a business or about yourself?
There are so many things. At the most basic level, I have learned that capitalism allows me to convert things at which I am skilled into things that feed, clothe and entertain me.
Personally, I have learned that high-flow activities such as enjoying work cause me to hyperfocus, which is pleasurable, but that I need to set alarms to remind me to drink water and move around.
Professionally, I have learned to write HTML, read Old English and explain that people already know what possessive determiners and fronted adverbials are; they just didn’t know what they’re called.
What is it about being a freelancer that you most enjoy?
Variety, solitude, pyjamas and an empty cinema in the middle of a weekday.
What do you enjoy the least about being a freelancer?
Having my editorial brief changed (repeatedly) during a project.
What is your ultimate professional goal as a freelancer?
I think I’d like to progress to being a literacy author and/or series consultant. Author could happen soonish, I think – I do a lot of re–authoring already, and I do have something small lined up provisionally. Series editor may be helped if I find time to get another degree, maybe in juvenile educational development.
I have my eye on a course at Cambridge, but I’d need to find a year in which to do it. I would also like to expand the design portion of my portfolio. My priority, though, is just to keep finding surprises and enjoyment in what I do.
On a slightly more personal note, I’ve become more engaged over the years with discussing issues surrounding mental health and neuro-atypicality, and I’d love to do productive work to further the discussion. As in so many facets of life, silence is our biggest enemy. I think the discussions we started in Freelance Heroes last week were powerful, and I hope they can continue.
What one thing do you wish you had known before you became a freelancer?
That, by following my instincts and being honest with myself, I was making good decisions.