The Real Cost of Editing

I have recently joined a freelancing site in an attempt to drum up business. Let’s face it, struggling writers often don’t have a lot of cash; however, in going through the job listings, I’ve noticed a trend. Many writers don’t actually have a true understanding of how much editing really costs.

I have encountered many jobs where a person has a budget of US$10, but they are wanting their manuscript of unspecified length to be fully edited by an experienced editor. That in itself is a complete joke, but the sheer number of them (many of whom are located in the US) has driven me to write this post. I feel the need to highlight to my readers exactly how much time goes into editing, and why you need to be prepared to pay in the order of US$200 – US$2000, in some cases even more, depending on the type of editing you require and the editor’s experience.

Let me break this down based on a manuscript that is roughly 80,000 words. This is a common length for most YA and adult genres, with the exception being fantasy and science fiction where the manuscripts can easily clock in at over 100,000 words.

I’m a developmental editor (or a book doctor, as some might call it), meaning that I specialize in assessments of plot and character development, along with narrative voice and reader engagement. As part of my services, I offer two different tiers of developmental editing:

  • the basic critique (or manuscript assessment, as it is sometimes called), where a full report is generated that looks at the big picture things: overall plot, character arcs, the emotional investment of the reader, among other things;
  • and a more in-depth line edit review that also delves into chapter structures, wording choices, and the finer details of language used.

There is no definitive science behind how long a contract will actually take to complete, as each project will be highly dependent on a writer’s skill and experience. However, let me try to put some numbers to this for you.

If I was casually reading a story that is 80,000 words (with no view to edit — just enjoy the story), it would take me approximately 2/3 days to read, assuming I had no distractions and life didn’t get in the way. That equates to approximately 24 – 36 hours of solid reading. The moment I need to put on my editor’s hat, my reading speed easily halves (i.e., increasing reading time to 4 – 6 days). Add the requirement of needing to comment on sentence construction and suggesting rewrites, and the reading speed drops again by similar factors (i.e., 8 – 12 days). That’s just the reading time, and that’s also assuming that the family don’t demand my focus for days on end.

Then you have the report writing. For a standard critique report, translating my notes into something that a client would understand, takes a full day’s work, sometimes two. Let’s not forget the editing of that report (because a professional editor should NEVER send out an editorial report that hasn’t been edited). That’s another day gone. And I NEVER send a report the same day that I finished it. I always give at least a day to go back and take a good look at what I’ve written to ensure that my comments and suggestions were not too harsh and are actually productive. That’s a minimum of 3 days for writing the report.

For a basic critique on 80,000 words (with a single read-through), minimum turnaround time is 6 – 9 days, not accounting for weekends, or life.

After years as a freelance editor, I’ve developed strategies to get through the workload without falling back onto 12-hour workdays, but any parent of two teenagers will be able to testify that normal life is constantly getting in the way. It’s one of the reasons why I always quote at least three weeks for manuscripts in the order of 80,000 words, depending on what other things are already going on.

Now, let’s put some monetary figures to this discussion.

Editors’ hourly rates vary widely. Some charge in the order of US$15/hr. Others have been known to charge US$200/hr. That is a huge range difference in the scheme of things. Let’s pick a respectable rate: US$35/hr. This should get you a reasonable editor whom produces quality work (and food for thought in your writing). Say that said editor works a normal 8-hour day for 13 business days. The charge for their services could easily be US$3,640. Even I would balk at that price.

However, consider the editor who charges a rate based on the minimum wage. (For this discussion, I’m going to use the minimum federal wage in the US of US$7.25 per hour, and NOT the minimum wage in New Zealand — which is currently NZ$15.75 per hour and is proposed to be increased to NZ$20 per hour.) Using the same number of hours, you would be looking at US$754. That price is a bit more reasonable, but can still be out of the reach of some starving writers.

I charge based on word counts. I employ a graduated scale, charging more per word for shorter manuscripts. This is because the time to write a report is similar regardless whether I’m looking at a 5,000-word manuscript or a 120,000-word manuscript. It’s also the reason why I specify a minimum charge. Based on my current rates, I charge US$480 for a basic critique on 80,000 words. That will be well below minimum wage, considering the numbers I’ve mentioned above, but I’m also still trying to make a name for myself — and I’m consciously aware that many writers struggle to find the money to pay for their next coffee without raiding the kid’s piggy-bank.

Coin purseLet’s come back to some of the delusional budgets that I have recently encountered. There was one that had a firm limit of US$10 for a 10,000-word story. Reading time has dramatically dropped from the numbers above, simply because it is a story that is a fraction of the size. Normally, stories of this length take me a full day to read and write the report, with an additional day allotted for editing the report and review of comments. So, based on a standard 8-hour workday, this delusional chap expects an editor to work for US$0.625 per hour. Even if I was able to pump out everything within a single day, you’re still looking at US$1.25 per hour.

Seriously? Sure, the person in question will likely find some desperate editor willing to take on the contract, just because they are in a really bad need for that caffeine fix, but I would be highly suspicious of any editor willing to take on such a contract at such low rates. The editor would likely be an entry-level editor with zero experience and zero training. It is highly unlikely that the feedback that the writer receives would come with the detailed eye and industry knowledge.

Some writers might be okay with that, but I know I wouldn’t be — not from a professional editor.

(For those wondering, based on my current rates, I charge US$100 for a basic critique on 10,000 words.)

And there was one contract that wanted a full critique on a full manuscript of 60,000 words for a firm budget of US$10. I’m not even going to bother going into the numbers for this one. This is just a joke in the extreme.

I encountered another one that wanted copyediting on 4000 words as a rush job, but was only prepared to pay $5. All I will say is that the poster of that job is crazy!

People, if you are trying to save money on editing, there are more effective ways of doing it. They require effort and time on your part, but they are worth it. I have spoken about different strategies before here.

I know many might question why professional editors are so expensive, but editing takes time. If you want quality feedback on your writing, you will need to pay for it.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2018

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