How long will the edit take? 8 factors that decide

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How long is a piece of string?
Image © Sue Littleford 2022

Just how long is that legendary piece of string?

There are two kinds of time to think about – the number of hours of editing the job will require, and how many elapsed days those hours will be spread across.

Here are the 8 factors that influence how long an edit takes:

1          What you want done

2          How good the text is

3          How long the text is

4          How fast the copyeditor can work

5          How many hours a day the copyeditor works

6          What else is happening in the copyeditor’s schedule and life

7          The workflow – how queries on the text are resolved

8          How effectively the author answers the queries

Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.

#1    What you want done

Publishers will have a pretty good grip on what they expect the copyeditor to do, and what the text needs. Authors are more variable. Some are experienced and can draw on previous edits they’ve had. Others are more rabbit-in-the-headlights about this question, if they’re novices.

Take a look at my infographic and my blog post on the five kinds of editing as a starting point. Going to an editor and saying it ‘just needs a proofread’ may be perfectly correct, but it probably isn’t, unless you’ve already been through multiple drafts and had the piece edited and laid out or formatted ready for publication (PDF for a book, article or company materials, but formatted in Word for something being published on your website, for example).

Authors are close to their writing, of course, and quite protective of it, also of course, but their writing has to be able to stand on its own two feet once it’s published in some manner. So understanding what the text needs is a key step in being able to communicate effectively with the person you hire as your editor.

#2    How good the text is

I work in the nonfiction realm, and authors who are in full control of their references are as rare as hen’s teeth! It’s perfectly understandable. You write the article, say, and produce your references list. Then you reread it, add a bit here, take away a bit there, insert a reference here, delete one there. But you still have the original references list, probably – so often, it gets forgotten. Then the journal editor and the peer reviewers wade in. Rinse and repeat.

I have, occasionally, worked with authors who have barely put a foot wrong with their references, and the speed at which I edit zooms off the scale! I have also, however, occasionally worked with authors who seem to have sent the references list for a different book or article altogether.

In one case, the author was repurposing his doctoral thesis as a book for a more general market. But close to the delivery date, he had a complete computer disaster and ended up having to retype his book.

He was so short of time he just provided the references list from the original thesis, from several years earlier. There was about a 30% overlap between the citations and the references. The speed at which I edit plummeted.

This is the weird thing – he knew he had removed sections and written new chunks, but he admitted it never occurred to him that the reference list would need to reflect that.

And sorting out all this is before I even look at the text part of the book or article!

Artwork is another time suck if it’s not right. An article I copyedited very recently took twice what it should have because the author had omitted a third of their artwork and then went on holiday, and what I had wasn’t identified correctly in the text. Between cataloguing the problems, realising that I could fix some if I ignore the author’s call-outs and relied on the text itself, and then dealing with what the author eventually produced, my time just soared.

And that’s still before I look at the text part of the book or article!

How good is your spelling, grammar and punctuation? Have you got your headings structure right? How closely have you adhered to the publisher’s style guide? How well does your text read?

#3    How long the text is

Size matters. But it’s still worth saying – it’s an absolutely key factor, although one, bizarrely, that packagers in particular overlook, in my experience. I was once asked to copyedit a 320,000-word manuscript, including getting queries out to the authors, having the authors reply and incorporating those changes, in three weeks. Impossible, for even a half-decent job of actually copyediting the text.

#4    How fast the copyeditor can work

Many discussions on the forums of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and its blog have led me to conclude that, for copyediting, the long-term average is around 2,500 words per hour.

Personally, my fastest used to be three times my slowest. Now it’s four times. That’s a heck of a range with a heck of an impact on how soon the job is finished. But I also know of editors who go far more slowly than my slowest. We’re human, with human variation, so it’s only to be expected.

Editors also vary greatly in their use of Word and other tools that help them work faster, and wield them with differing levels of expertise, affecting their overall speed.

#5    How many hours a day the copyeditor works

You do NOT want a tired editor! Experienced editors, who know when enough’s enough, are very unlikely to edit more than five hours per day. Some knock it on the head at three. Don’t quote me on this – and certainly don’t hold me to this – but if I edit 10,000 words per day, I call it good.

Other editors can’t work a standard employee day, though – they freelance precisely because it gives them the freedom to do other things, whether that’s looking after children or elders, painting, sailing, knitting, walking, breeding alpacas or, well, anything! Don’t make assumptions about how much work an editor can do each day – they’ll factor it into their sums. Believe them.

#6    What else is happening in the copyeditor’s schedule and life

I used to say I worked at book length, and then I was invited to be the copyeditor for a scholarly journal, and then another, and now I have to juggle articles into my book schedules. (If only the articles came in in tranches for each issue! But online publishing ahead of print destroyed that approach to the workflow, so now I have them coming in any old time, never knowing when the trickle will be a deluge. That has an impact on my book-editing speed, of course.)

Other editors may work around their children’s school hours, or work in the evenings and weekends, around a full- or part-time salaried job. Or they may get ill. I’ve seen an editor carry on editing with a broken wrist. That slowed her down, rather, especially as it was her dominant hand!

#7    The workflow – how queries on the text are resolved

I’ve just mentioned workflow. This links back to #1, what you want done. For some publishers I liaise directly with the author on queries, get their responses, discuss them, sometimes, to agree on a solution that works for us both, then incorporate them in the book and send ready-to-set files back to the publisher. For others, I simply raise all the queries in comments, send the file back and walk away. With independent authors, we may go through several iterations of revisions.

Each approach has a different impact on how long the edit will take.

Some publishers require that the editor returns as sample chapter for quality control before requiring changes, or giving permission to proceed with the rest of the edit. And then they don’t respond promptly.

The editor is left staring into the abyss of a wrecked schedule, not knowing whether they can start on another job because the current one might come back later that day. If you’re a publisher who does this, don’t. Please don’t. You slow down everything and reduce editors to gibbering bags of nerves – and you damage their income.

#8    How effectively the author answers the queries

Authors are busy. Scholarly authors are especially busy at certain times of the year and the last two years have been a particularly relentlessly busy period, because, ya know, Covid.

Fretting over whether a comma, even one that can alter the meaning of a sentence, is in the right place or not, will seem pretty low priority. Checking that whether Jones 2019b was cited in error for Jones 2018b can also seem pretty low priority.

It may have been months since the author last looked at that particular chunk of text and their interests are now focused on their next book or article. Others maintain their enthusiasm and pull out all the stops to put out an excellent book. And all shades in between, of course.

Covid was a particularly challenging time for one of my authors. His materials were in his office and he needed those to answer my queries. Unfortunately, he was locked out of his office at the university for Covid reasons. Happily, he was allowed in just in time to answer the last few queries before the deadline.

We squeaked in, but we could very easily have been very late – or have returned the book for typesetting knowing that there were going to be a much larger number of corrections at first proofs than would be wanted. Compensating for running late isn’t without implications further along the line.

Overall, I’ve been impressed that so many of my authors have responded so well to queries. There are still, though, many times I’ve had to go back to the author because an answer has been omitted, or the answer given just doesn’t work, betraying signs of rushing and their attention being elsewhere.

Some authors reply by return – and you can see they’ve rushed (though some have been spot on) and it’s been meh (or wonderful). Some authors go quiet for a week and have to be chivvied along, with the job getting closer and closer to its delivery date and my time being spent checking my logs and emailing lists of outstanding responses.

If I’m editing in the run-up to the start of the academic year, or at exam-marking time, I have my fingers very tightly crossed that I find few queries!

Some authors, amusingly, if time-consumingly for themselves and for me, think their editors are their students. More than once I’ve asked a question about the text (along the lines of ‘This is ambiguous. Do you mean this or this, or perhaps something else?’), and received not the answer, but three paragraphs of teaching (once with a recommended reading list) so I could learn the answer for myself! Faster for everyone just to give me the correct wording, surely?! And I know I’m not the only one that’s happened to!

Producing a time estimate

So there we have it: eight factors that influence how long a job takes. If you approach an editor to take on a job, you can help get the ball rolling by giving some basic facts: how many words, how many tables and other artwork, how many references, how many notes and, of course, a due date. Also be ready with what services and level of intervention you think are required (#1, #3, #7).

The editor may ask for a sample to take a look at the state of the text (#2) and, knowing for themselves #4, #5 and #6, can produce an estimate of how long the job will take and know whether they can meet your deadline. Sensible editors include some wiggle room for life’s little unexpected events. If the workflow includes dealing with the author queries and resolving them, #8 remains the great unknown until the job is already well under way.

If you’re looking for a copyedit, do get in touch to start the conversation!

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