Stop Wasting Time on Estimates (podcast)

Stop Wasting Time on Estimates (podcast)

Learn how to get a ballpark estimate on the table asap to avoid pointless estimates. That’s the topic of this episode, an extended look at a topic that I serialized on the (now defunct) Copyediting blog.

The podcast is now archived. Press play below or right-click to download the file. 14 min

Welcome to Right Angels and Polo Bears, the podcast about editing words in all sorts of contexts. I am Adrienne Montgomerie, SciEditor.


Oh, I thought I muted that.

Adrienne speaking.

I’d be happy to give you an estimate. Projects of this type usually cost in the range of $12,000. Does that sound like something you can work with? OK, send me the details and I’ll get you a more accurate estimate. But, can I call you back? I’m just recording a podcast. Thanks.

Where was I?

Oh yeah. Stop wasting time on estimates. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

For the first 14 years of my career, I only ever worked for publishers. They called me and described a project, asked my hourly rate, and we were off and running. They had the experience to know how long the tasks took and figured out from my rate if I fit their budget. Some of those conversations lasted literally 10 minutes.

Then I started getting calls from individuals and corporations. They had no experience in publishing. They had no idea what things cost or how long they took. I’d spend hours going over their proposal, reviewing their sample, coming up with a plan and a solid estimate so I could present it to them with confidence.

“Adrienne, you have floored me with this estimate. This is 10 times what I thought it would cost.”

“Are you FREAKIN kidding me?! That’s, that’s … <exhale> For 1/10th you get the estimate.”

<walking away>

“That’s it. I’m out of this game.”

Right? What a waste of time. I spent four hours preparing that; UNPAID. I cannot operate this way. I’m going to go broke on estimates that dead end.

I turned to Greg Ioannou for advice. He prepares tons of estimates and works for hundreds of people outside the publishing industry. Besides, I’ve known him most of my life now and he’s one of those grandfathers of editing, if I can call him that without being cut out of the will. Of course I would ask his advice. He was there in the first days of Canada’s professional association for editors (it was FEAC back then), and he owns a multi-editor company as well as teaching editing at a university and running an independent press. — Well, I could fill this whole episode with his credits. So just trust me that his advice holds sway.

“Get a ballpark as soon as possible.” That’s what Greg said. He’s got that soft voice, really.

That was enough. I sat down and coded a widget right then that would give me an instant estimate for three stages of editing, based on a simple word count. You can find that on my website. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

And when I say instant, I mean it. AS you type in those numbers, you’ll see the dollar values grow. And it gives you an estimate of the number of hours it takes, too.

“That’s absurd” you say. “Every project is different. Some are a real slog and some are speedy.”

Look, nay-sayer, you can probably come up with endless reasons that this won’t work, but let me tell you, I have not wasted a single moment further talking to people who could not afford my services.

I have used that time to record podcasts, for you. And pet my cat. And stare into the middle distance. All better uses of my time.

Besides. I said it was a ballpark. Of course I need to see the project to give an estimate. But now when I look at those words I know that the client can afford me. We are three steps closer to an agreement, in my opinion. <Ka-ching>

Why can I ballpark so confidently? Because I’m a data hound. I blame that in part on my mentor, Helen Mason. She required me to keep detailed records of what I did every 15 minutes of my day. I can look back at her invoices and see that chapter 2 was a real slog and took 4 times longer than any other chapter in the book. I can take an average of the 94 titles I have worked on, divide them according to task — whether the edits were substantive or developmental, a straight copy edit, even the proofreading stage — and I can get an estimate of my pace for the past 17 years. Or course I know the word counts for those projects too. Beginning word count. That’s what we go on. Not the end after I’ve cut 2/3 of the words.

Melanie Thompson advises this approach in her book called Pricing a Project. If you keep detailed records, you can look back and analyze the pace and price for whatever type of material it is that you work on. You don’t need to be detailed as Helen. We don’t need to know every 15 minutes. But the overall project: word count, hours spent, and maybe a couple notes on what made the work faster or slower. Melanie has some great templates in her book. They’re laid out to take a project brief and record notes as you work so you can analyze projects after.

And you don’t have to track yourself in such detail forever. I still do, because I have an app on my phone that makes it supper easy and — no, I’m going to talk about tracking time in another episode. I have the data, but I don’t analyze it often.

Except right now. I’m getting more work on slides and interactive “books.” Those don’t really compare to the pace of editing narrative prose. Since I do mostly developmental editing (what EAC calls substantive and stylistic editing) and I put a lot of effort into making sure the material meets learning objectives and a host of other criteria. — I have some links that explain all of that. I’ll put them in the show notes. — Because I do that kind of really in-depth-look-at-the-words editing, editing slides is s.l.o.w.

It can take as long to edit an activity with 20 words as it does to edit 250 words of narrative. At least, I’m getting that feeling. I’m getting close to having done enough slides and interactive products to find my average pace. My mean pace. The average. — Using the mathematically accurate term there to please my math publishers, and because I like the sound of mean pace. Mean, pace.

The publishers are calling me with project budgets for these and I’m taking them on a bit blind, confident that they’ll continue treating me well and haven’t severely underpriced the offer. It seems to be working out, but I look forward to having a better sample size.

Hey, if you want to contribute to my data crunching, you can submit your records on my website. Again: link in the show notes. The results of this data collection are public, as is my instant estimator. That’s right. You can go to my site and plug in your own word count to get an estimate. The estimator is based on MY hourly rate, of course. But you can work out your own price from the estimated hours. It rounds up. It is just a ballpark, after all.

Now, where was I? Ballpark right away… track your time… instant estimator… Right!

I’ve got great news! Yes: lots of editors before you have collected all sorts of data on their pace and put together typical ranges for each type of editing. Ranges in how long it takes. Some even outline why some edits take longer and others are faster. (There’s no accounting for scope creep or shifting-parameters and the endless meetings. So be sure to add time on for that. Double sounds about right.)

Can you guess where you’ll find links to those resources? That’s right: in the show notes. The one on my website comes from the Editorial Eye. That was a newsletter from just after the Jurassic period. Their ranges and criteria are pretty much spot on, in my experience. Aimy Einsohn also published some pace information in her Copy Editors’ Handbook. And the EFA put a chart on their website. That’s the Editorial Freelancers’ Association in the States. I disagree with their rates: the pay is far too low and the pace is far too fast. But it is another opinion you can look at. (Show notes for the links.)

Well. Look. Let me just give you some of those numbers:

A developmental edit takes between 2 and 4 pages per hour. That’s a page of 250 words — which works out to a max of 1,000 words per hour. But one time a really challenging book slowed to the pace of 1 page an hour. It was painful for me AND the writer.

Copy editing goes at the rate of 4 to 8 pages an hour. roughly 1,300 words an hour.

And proofreading is fastest of all, coming in at 6 to 10 pages an hour, or up to 2,500 words.

The pace slows if there are lots of errors or special terms or math or symbols. It also slows if the topic is unfamiliar or you have to work in less-than-ideal circumstances. You define what those are. Pace speeds up if the opposite is true.

Those types of editing are defined in good detail by the EAC: substantive, copy editing, and proofreading. They’ve delineated all the tasks, so we can all work from common ground. Professional Editorial Standards are what they call that document. Link: show notes.

With those resources in hand, even without understanding how those rates relate to your own working pace, you too can throw a number into the ballpark.

Oh. Maybe I should try to extend a sports metaphor. I don’t do sports. I really know nothing about them at all. Sorry.

For me, giving that ballpark estimate “as soon as possible” means almost before they’ve finished describing the project — because — they’ve probably contacted me while I’m deep in some other project and short on deadline.

But my instant estimator relies on an average, the mean of all projects I have ever worked on. And projects are hardly ever — never match the mean.

Another option is to ask the client what their budget is. Not surprisingly, many clients guard their budget information, fearing they’ll be cheated if you know how much they’ve got. So, you might ask instead: “I can give you a quote that is going to range from $low to $high. Does that sound like something you can work with?”

Once you know that you and your client are at least in the same ballpark, you can get the materials you need to make a more accurate estimate.

For an actual price quote, I need to see the project. Then, I can tell where the writing lies in my easy-peasy to send-more-chocolate scale of difficulty, and present the client with the three tiers of service. It’s getting on, so I’m going to talk about that in another episode: the art of the upsell, or: how to generate happier clients and more income.


How do you estimate? How do you get clients in the same ballpark with you? Does the instant estimator get anywhere near your pace/ what you need to throw a ball in the park? (Is that a better metaphor? I really need to stop doing this.)

I hope you will leave your comments on the site, or Tweet me at scieditor, that’s S_C_I as in science, editor. You can also join the discussion on the Dameditors Facebook page. That’s [spell].

To find links to the sources I mention in this podcast, check the show notes at: Catch the Sun .net. In the next episode I will tell you more about the upsell. Call it tiered pricing if that’s less icky for you.

Thanks for listening.

Mentioned in this episode:

Also in this series:

You might also be interested in the podcast on how to State Your Rate With Confidence. Part technique, part mind hack, and a bit of a laugh.


Extra considerations when editing educational material

Editors who develop school materials also adjust manuscripts to address these considerations:

  • learning outcomes (defined by Ministry of Education)
  • reading level of target user
  • copy fitting (and fitting content to class time)
  • Bloom’s taxonomy and deciphering ministry curriculum documents
  • cognitive development theories
  • multiple intelligences and differentiated instruction
  • assessment models
  • trends in educational theory

The image for this episode is by Alexandre Normand used under CC BY-2.0 license.

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