Charging for freelance editing

I thought I’d look at a subject that is near and dear to the heart of every freelance editor and proofreader: how to charge for your services. I’m not talking about how much to charge; that’s a thorny topic that I will cravenly kick down the road for later. Instead, let’s talk about the method by which you charge. The four most common systems are charging by the word, by the page, by the hour, and by the project. And on top of all that, you must decide whether to charge different rates for different kinds of editing.

==  Charging by the Word  ==

This system has the benefit of being simple and clear for everyone involved. Just do a word count on the document and tell the client exactly what the total cost will be. If the job requires that you work from printed pages rather than a file, you’ll have to count the words by hand first.

One potential drawback is that you are paid the same regardless of how much work you put into the job. If you edit or proofread a 7,000-word article or short story that is written flawlessly, you’ll do all right. But the more likely situation is that you get a manuscript that is, um, flawful. (Hey, maybe I should submit that to the Collins Dictionary: flawed + awful = flawful.) Working on 7,000 flawful words will take you a lot longer, but you won’t get paid more for your efforts.

Do those situations balance out overall? That is, will you get enough clean jobs that require less time to make up for the messy jobs that eat up too much time? That’s a question you’ll have to answer for yourself based on who your clients (or potential clients) are and what kind of manuscripts you’ll receive.

==  Charging by the Page  ==

This system relies on the industry standard that says a page consists of 250 words. Again, do a word count on the document, but here you also have to convert that to the appropriate number of pages before you come up with the final price. And again, if you’re working from printed pages rather than a file, you’ll have to figure out how many industry-standard pages the job entails.

Charging by the page has the same benefits and drawbacks as charging by the word. If the manuscript is in good shape, you’ll probably come out ahead on the job. If the manuscript is so stinky that you need safety gloves and tongs to pick it up, you’ll put in longer hours for the same pay.

==  Charging by the Hour  ==

This system seems simple at first—you charge by how much time you put into the job. One major benefit is that the pay is commensurate with the amount of effort required. If a job comes to you well written, you will spend less time on it overall, lowering the total cost for the client. If a job is a mess and needs lots of help, you will spend more time overall, raising the cost. It’s fair for everyone involved (as long as you keep track of your time accurately).

However, the reason I said this method seems simple is that some clients are reluctant to hire an editor without knowing how long the job will take. They don’t want to be on the hook for a final price that could be higher than what they were expecting (and who can blame them?). If you charge by the hour, you should also give your client an estimate of the number of hours you’ll put in. That requires that you have enough experience in the field to size up the initial manuscript and judge the amount of blood, sweat, and tears you’ll expend.

You’ll also need to spell out what happens if you were wrong and the job takes more or less time. If you quote an estimate of 12 hours and the project ends up taking 16, the client might not be thrilled to pay for the extra hours. Thus, it helps to give regular updates on how the work is progressing. That way, if you’re approaching the quoted number of hours and know that you’ll need more time, the two of you can figure out a solution.

==  Charging by the Project  ==

In this system, the client pays you an agreed-upon price to do the job, no matter how much time you end up putting into it. This method is appealing for clients who don’t have much in their editing budget and want to eliminate the guesswork of the other methods. It’s not always the best method for the editor, but in some cases a client will simply say, “I can pay you X amount to edit my manuscript,” and you must decide whether to accept the job or turn it down.

As another option, if you accept the job for a fixed price, you can break that down to an hourly rate to help manage your time. For example, let’s say that you normally charge $30 per hour, but you accept a job that pays a fixed price of $500. A bit of quick division reveals that if you want to earn your usual hourly rate, you should devote no more than 16.6 hours to the project. Of course, that doesn’t mean you stop editing in midsentence when the timer reaches zero. Instead, you budget your time throughout to ensure that you can finish the job in 16.6 hours. (This option assumes that you’ll still do good work in those 16.6 hours. If you cut corners and do a sloppy job just to stick to the allotted time, that won’t do the client—or your reputation—much good.)

==  Differentiating Your Services  ==

Different jobs require different types of editing. Simple proofreading is at one end of the continuum. Developmental work is at the other. Between the two extremes are light, medium, and heavy copy editing. If you want to charge different fees based on the type of work performed, you’ll need to assess the initial manuscript and let the client know what kind of editing is required. That’s a skill in itself, one that you gain only from experience. A look at the Editorial Freelancers Association rates page shows many different specific services that editors might offer. (It also shows the range of suggested fees, but as I said up top, that’s a subject for another day.)

This complication usually comes into play when you charge by the word or by the page. I find that when you charge by the hour, it doesn’t really matter what kind of work you’re doing—light proofreading will automatically take less time than heavy copy editing, so the client will pay less overall.

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This post isn’t meant to be comprehensive. Each of the topics mentioned above has aspects that I haven’t touched on, and the choice is not black and white—you can use a combination of any or all of them in your work. But I thought it would be useful to look at the basics (as I see ’em, anyway) and start a conversation.

3 thoughts on “Charging for freelance editing

  1. OH! The bane of my existence. I’m constantly wrestling with this and have changed my rates page several times recently trying to nail this down. (Which means that one client just got a hell of a deal, apparently!)

    I charge by the 250-word page, not by the hour. I do this for a few reasons, one of them being that I do not have complete control over my time. I have two children, one small and one medium, and they have many alleged needs. The hour in which I have to field three calls from my middle schooler is not the same as the hour I spend alone in my office. I also have to work at different times of day and night — something that takes me 5 minutes to do well at 11:00 am might take 10 minutes for the same result at 11:00 pm.

    Another reason is the pricing issue you mentioned: charging by the page gives us a solid number to work with. I always put that number forth as a “good faith estimate” with the caveat that if I run into bigger problems than I expected — or, more common, if the piece needs way more help than I’ve contracted for — I’ll need to renegotiate.

    Charging by volume instead of time means that I have to be really careful about job descriptions — I think of it as maintaining a set altitude. If I’m doing a light copy edit, and I see something more substantive, I have to keep myself on task. If it’s really egregious I’ll put in a comment identifying the problem, but I simply can’t afford to fix everything unless I’m being paid for it. The rates are low enough, in my opinion, for what we do.

    I don’t charge by the word — I have to admit, it’s because charging 0.014 cents for something just feels silly. I’m not actually charging 0.014 cents for anything: no one is going to hire me to edit one word, so why make that the unit? Anyway, they stopped minting 0.014 cent coins years ago.

    Frankly, I think the biggest problem in setting rates is the fuzzy definition of Proofreading vs Light Copy Editing. Proofreading is most commonly defined as “fixing errors” — grammar, punctuation, usage, spelling, typos. That’s not the traditional definition — in more traditional terms, that level of edit is called light copy editing, and proofreading involves reading over the final, formatted draft to pick out any small errors or inconsistencies that the copy editor missed. I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice by leaving those definitions hazy — we’ve all been asked to do a “proofread” and then gotten a manuscript that is clearly an unimproved first draft!

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    1. Deborah, I agree 100% about the difficulty in charging by the hour, both for the editor (hard to keep track of your time) and for the client (would like to know the final cost up front). I’ve been using this method but might change in the near future. Still mulling it over. One benefit is that I don’t grapple with the “altitude” problem you mentioned—if I see a problem, I can fix it rather than force myself to ignore it.

      Charging by the word seems simple and elegant, but as you said, when you break it down to a tiny amount like .014 cents per word, it just looks silly. If you look around online, you’ll see that other freelancers charge up to 6 cents per word, which comes out to a whopping $15 per page!

      You’re right about the blurred distinctions between proofreading and light copy editing. (Technically, a proofreader shouldn’t even make the changes in the file—he or she should just mark up a printout and let the author make the changes. But the availability of tracked changes in Word means that proofers are expected to make all the corrections, after which the author can accept or reject them as desired.) I proofread a magazine as one of my freelance jobs, and I’m fortunate because I get the pages after a copy editor has cleaned them up, so I rarely have to make substantive changes.

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  2. I primarily work directly with authors, not publishers. I charge a project fee for editing a completed manuscript, regardless of the level of editing—but only after I’ve reviewed it and provided a sample edit, and that fee is commensurate with the amount of time I’ll need to spend. For on-going projects, I charge an hourly rate; this is something that has developed over time for me, and after a few “simple clean-up” projects that were really structural edits (when I was a newbie). BTW, lawful = my new favorite word!

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