How Much Does Editing Cost?

Perfect words make good ideas great, but let’s get real—not everyone wants to pore over their old English notebooks before jotting a Facebook status.

Perfect, precise communication of your ideas could be the missing ingredient to take your business or personal project to the next level, and one solution is to outsource the work to a professional writer or editor. But how much does professional editing cost?

Before you talk money, what you really need to ask yourself is, What kind of editing do I need? Most people simply don’t know the answer. Your budget is not an arbitrary number; it should be determined by your needs. Do you know what to look for in an editor? Do you know the level of editing your material requires? Do you find yourself wondering, What’s the difference between copyediting and proofreading, anyway? And what will I gain from professional editing? Don’t worry—you’re not alone.

Buying a service should involve the same amount of market research as buying a physical product, if not more. That said, it’s time for you to become an informed consumer. If you don’t, you’ll end up paying for a Harley and driving home a moped.

The Editor’s Tool Chest

The word “editor” suffers from rampant ambiguity. In the project management sense, it applies to someone who commissions and curates material for publication (think Editor-in-Chief) and manages projects through coordination and supervision. In the revision sense, the word applies to someone who corrects material to prepare it for publication. To help you save time and money, here’s a quick lesson on the tools of the editor.

Hammer and Nails: Copyediting 

“Copy” is any text that’s written for publication. Copyediting is the process of editing copy for accuracy, clarity, style, consistency, and formatting, and correcting errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, word choice, subject/verb agreement, etc. Copyediting also may include fact-checking, checking references, and alterations to adhere to the preferred style guide.

Sandpaper and Paint: Proofreading

Most people think proofreading means fixing spelling, grammar, and punctuation—one step below copyediting. Most people are wrong. A “proof” is a preliminary draft of a piece of copy, and proofreading is the final quality check before copy goes out to the world. A true proofreader makes no changes but identifies and marks any errors or discrepancies in copy that have been missed. The writer or copy editor then consults the proofreader’s marks and makes the necessary corrections.

Blueprints and Permits: Developmental Editing

This category chiefly applies to books. A developmental edit, sometimes known as structural editing, involves big-picture planning, organization, and flow. It may include the creation of outlines, chapters, and drafts, developing a narrative for the presentation of ideas, and suggesting new material.

Remodeling and Interior Decorating: Substantive Editing

If you have material that needs to be rewritten, expanded upon, or reorganized in general, then substantive editing is the name of the game. This stage hones in on revisions at the paragraph level to aid in narrative and flow. Sometimes, rewriting is involved.

Admittedly, when it comes down to practical application, these categories tend to overlap. You might need a combination of multiple services or even a full, top-to-bottom overhaul. The best editors will be flexible based on your needs. As stated in the Editorial Freelancers Association’s Code of Fair Practice:

“Editorial freelancers perform a variety of tasks that often defy common descriptions of editorial jobs. For example, an editorial freelancer who takes on a copyediting project might also correct logical flaws in narration or make other changes that entail substantive editing. A freelancer doing a proofreading project might impose a consistent style, even though editing for style is generally viewed as the copyeditor’s job.”

Determining Your Budget and Spotting Red Flags

Rates vary widely. Some professionals work at per-word rates, and others charge by the hour. If you encounter a freelance editor who does not have a list of predetermined rates arranged by category, proceed with caution. And if they can’t tell you the difference between the categories mentioned above, consider that a red flag.

Now that you’re an informed consumer, you can weed out the phonies. As a tentative inquiry, kindly tell your candidate that you’re looking for an editor, but you don’t understand the difference between copyediting and proofreading. Their answer will speak to their familiarity with the trade.

But a tricky question won’t be enough. It’s not a bad idea to see your editor’s skills in action before you hire them. A freelance editor is a contractor, however, so don’t ask them to complete an editing “test.” The EFA’s Code of Fair Practice states:

“References and work samples are preferable to proficiency tests. . . . Only editorial novices should take proficiency tests; these represent unpaid time and impose an opportunity cost on the freelancer, who could be earning income during the time required to take the test.”

When vetting an editor, ask to see a resumé, a list of past projects, or some work samples. Most importantly, don’t forget to ask if they provide sample edits.

The Value of a Sample Edit

There’s no better way to start than to try before you buy. You’ll know you’re working with a true professional if they offer you a sample edit, free of charge, to demonstrate their skills and showcase the value they can bring to your work. Most editors use the Track Changes tools available in Microsoft Word, Google docs, and Apple Pages, so you can see everything they do and accept or reject each change as you see fit.

Pay attention to the results. Does the editor provide any explanations for his or her changes? Does the editor critique your work and simply stop there? Or does he or she offer solid suggestions for how to fix the perceived problem? The value of an editor lies in his or her ability to solve problems, not just point them out.

So How Much Does Editing Cost?

When determining your budget and shopping for editors, one of the most valuable tools to keep in your back pocket is the list of common editorial rates courtesy of the Editorial Freelancers Association.

Arm yourself with knowledge. Shop smart. Start with a free sample edit, and you can’t go wrong. And most of all, work hard and have a good time.