An American Editor

August 29, 2012

The Business of Editing: Evaluating a Manuscript

One of the most difficult tasks an editor has is the evaluation of a manuscript to determine how much time it will take to edit the manuscript, and thus how to charge for the work. There are multiple ways of doing this, some of which are dependent on who the client is (i.e., a publishing company or an individual author).

For most editors, it is the author-client whose manuscript is the most difficult to evaluate.

As I have noted in previous posts, most recently in The Business of Editing: Language Pet Peeves II, different rules apply to fiction and to nonfiction, particularly in regard to use of precise language. When I evaluate an author’s manuscript, I keep the differences in mind.

I know that an author who hires me to edit his or her manuscript wants the best possible job for the lowest possible price, with an emphasis on lowest. Yet this same author often makes my job more difficult than it has to be by not carefully preparing either the manuscript or the materials that should accompany it (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: What an Author Should Give an Editor) and by not knowing precisely what type of edit the author wants me to perform (see, e.g., Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor). This is compounded by the result of my evaluation of the manuscript itself.

The very first thing I do is determine the true number of manuscript pages. It is not unusual for an author to tell me the manuscript is 150 pages when in reality it is closer to 400. Authors should remember that manuscript pages are not the equivalent of printed pages.

The second thing I do is search the manuscript for the use of certain terms, including due to, since, about, and over. These terms are very often misused in nonfiction, less so in fiction, but getting a count tells me how “lazy” with language the author has been. The higher the count, the lazier the author has likely (this is not always true and it does depend on other factors) been grammatically, which means it will take more time to edit the manuscript.

The third thing I do, but only with nonfiction, is check the references. Are the citations consistent in style or does each reference have its own style? Are the references complete or incomplete? Inconsistent styling of the references by the author and incomplete references are another sign of a lazy author. That’s okay, professional editors have lots of experience fixing references, but doing so is very time-consuming and runs up the cost. It is less expensive to fix references that are consistent in style, even if the style is incorrect, than if there is little to no consistency.

The fourth thing I do is check for consistent spelling of names and terms. Again, what I am looking for is laziness (or sloppiness) because the less consistent spelling is, the more time-consuming the project will be.

Fifth, I search for common homophone errors (e.g., where/were; your/you’re; there/their; too/to/two; here/hear; bear/bare; forth/fourth; principal/principle). When I find a lot of this type of error, I know that time will be needed. It is also a clue that the author may have a great story to tell but needs a lot of help with fundamental grammar.

Finally, I skim the manuscript to see if I can get a clue as to how much effort the author put into the manuscript’s preparation. Some manuscripts demonstrate that the author has self-edited and revised several times, making for a more polished, even though imperfect, manuscript; with other manuscripts, it is clear that the author sat at the computer and pounded out a manuscript without going back through it more than once.

This skim is also a way to get a handle on the author’s language skills. I expect the manuscript from an author for whom English is a second language to have more issues than the manuscript from an author whose first language is English, but that is not always true. I am looking for what I call grammar patterns, which are author idiosyncracies that are grammatically incorrect but done consistently and repeatedly throughout the manuscript.

With the above information in hand, I have a pretty good idea about how difficult the edit will be. Some factors weigh more heavily than others when trying to figure out how much editing time will be needed, and thus how much to charge, but it is also true that some of the problems could have been fixed by the author before sending the manuscript for editing.

If an author has provided the correct information with the manuscript (again, see The Business of Editing: What an Author Should Give an Editor), it will reduce the time needed for editing. If the information is not supplied by the author, it will take me time to assemble the information, time that has to be paid for by the author. Similarly, the type of edit that the author wants (again, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor) influences the cost.

There is no way to determine precisely how long it will take to edit a manuscript. The best any editor can do is guesstimate based on prior experience, but experienced editors are fairly accurate with their guesstimates. The quandary for the editor is whether to accept a flat fee or an hourly fee.

Whether to accept a flat fee or an hourly fee requires one more evaluation: an evaluation of the author. That is, how much author contact and back-and-forth between the author and editor is likely to be required by the author? Personal contact tends to eat up a lot of time and interrupt the editing process. Some authors require more contact than do other authors.

Some contact and back-and-forth is necessary and expected. How much becomes excessive is hard to know in advance. But in a professional relationship, which is what the relationship between the author and the editor should be, some trust on the part of each party that the other is doing his or her job competently is important and necessary.

The bottom line is that both an author’s manuscript and the author need to be evaluated by the editor to determine an appropriate fee. Once the editor has determined what an appropriate fee would be, it is up to the author to decide whether he or she wants to hire the editor.



  1. Good post, because each manuscript is so indiviudal with, as you say, different styles and grammatical strengths and weaknesses.
    One of the other things I look for is jargon. Jargon is a ‘pet peeve’ of mine, because it’s so elitist. If you understand the jargon, you’re an insider. If you don’t, you’re an outsider and excluded from the ‘secret handshake’ and familiarity that jargon implies. Naturally, the use of jargon depends on whether a document is for internal (in-house) consumption or whether it will be read by the general public. Again, if the document is aimed at a general readership but peppered with jargon and acronmys (not previously spelled out), that all adds to the editing time.


    Comment by Deirdre O'Flynn — August 29, 2012 @ 6:15 am | Reply

  2. We evaluators/editors struggle with these issues of time and cost. The bottom line is whether we are being paid fairly for the time we take to edit a manuscript. For my clients, the best measure is for me to edit ten pages at no charge. That way I know how long it takes and can extrapolate an overall time/cost factor (and throw in an hour or two for the hassle factor). At the same time, the author sees what I am looking for and can either (try to) fix things before we move ahead or approve the edit as assessed.


    Comment by Sandra Wendel — August 29, 2012 @ 8:39 am | Reply

  3. Having a mental or formal checklist of what to look for before coming up with an estimate is a great idea, and vital to success at making good estimates. I can’t think of anything else to add! Well, maybe a glance for Word’s warning red squiggles to see if the author has been unusually careless with spelling, which is easy (for me, anyhow) to fix but can slow things down considerably. And maybe making sure the client doesn’t confuse proofreading with editing, or a light edit with a substantive one, since those factors affect time and thus cost.

    Double-checking the actual scope or length of the ms. is absolutely essential, because authors/clients will either deliberately or inadvertently under-count pages, and get very upset if they haven’t been warned ahead of time that their (single-spaced, 8-point type, 1/4-inch margins) 150-page ms. is really 400 pages and thus will take longer and cost more to edit. I even double-check the math when, as actually just happened a few minutes ago, I get a request to edit something and the client tells me the word count and the client’s page count before the ms. is even in hand.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — August 29, 2012 @ 10:07 am | Reply

  4. Good checklist. I also skim for how the author has formatted the document — if there are a gazillion different styles (whether Word styles or just author-created) if there’s an overly liberal use of ital, bold, underline (sometimes all at once) a mix of c&lc and sentence case for heads of the same level, and other elements like tables and lists are inconsistently formatted, I know I’m dealing with a heavier edit.

    The only quibble I have with Rich’s otherwise excellent post is that if I was working with an author-client who was looking for the lowest possible price, I’d run the other way rather than try to figure out how to price the job, because no price would be low enough, certainly not a price I could live with. I’d rather have an author, like one I worked with a few weeks ago, who wanted high-quality work in a tight timeframe and was willing to pay for it — even before receiving the final version from me.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — August 29, 2012 @ 6:12 pm | Reply

  5. Like Ruth, I always double-check word count even when the clients provides it. I recently bid on a job with several parts; I was asked to bid on one or all parts. I spent a while checking on all the word counts, which paid off, because one part of the job was undercounted by half! The other parts were either the same or close enough. I bid on everything according to my word counts, and I did not get the part that was undercounted (the other editors who were bidding were probably using the given counts and so underbid me — and I imagine the unlucky winner of that bid will be unpleasantly surprised by the actual amount of work), but I did get the biggest part of the job.
    I did alert the client (an organization, not an individual), but my contact just could not grasp what I explained about page counts. I have run into this before. In my experience, project editors, production editors, and editorial assistants are not trained to troubleshoot word-counting issues. Individual author-clients are even less likely to understand this.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — August 29, 2012 @ 6:25 pm | Reply

  6. Very good article! (Can I point out two small grammar errors that I noticed – you’d be able to correct them if desired? For the paragraph that begins “With the above information in hand, I have pretty good idea…” – missing the word “a” before the word ‘pretty’. In the same paragraph in the next sentence where it says “but it is also true that the some of the problems…” – the first word “the” is an extra word to delete.)


    Comment by nightowlinil — August 30, 2012 @ 6:35 am | Reply

    • Thanks for catching the typos. This is one of the problems of self-editing. I see what I expect to see.


      Comment by americaneditor — August 30, 2012 @ 7:12 am | Reply

  7. And please disregard the typos in my posts. I do generally use commas where needed and believe in subject-verb agreement. Shouldn’t post when I’m tired.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — August 30, 2012 @ 10:36 am | Reply

  8. Great post (and comments)! I especially like the bit about recurring terms and seeing how diligent (or not) the author has been with language.

    I also really like Teresa’s comment about “no price being low enough” when an author is looking for the lowest possible price.


    Comment by Jocelyn Truitt — August 30, 2012 @ 4:51 pm | Reply

    • I think Teresa misunderstands my intended meaning, which means I wasn’t all that clear. We all look for the lowest price we can pay no matter what service or item we are buying. Few of us, for example, go to an automobile dealer and offer to pay the sticker price; most of us comparison shop. Many of us buy from Amazon because we can save $2 over the local store’s price. Authors looking for editors do the same. They have a budget and want to get the most they can for the least they can pay. It doesn’t mean they won’t pay a reasonable fee if you ask for one; it means they want me to come back with my “best” price, no matter what that price happens to be. My remark should not be interpreted as meaning that the author will only hire the lowest price editor the author can find; it should be understood as the author wanting my best price.


      Comment by americaneditor — August 31, 2012 @ 7:44 am | Reply

  9. I find it interesting that you determine the number of manuscript pages in working up your fee. For me, the word count (along with several of the other factors you’ve mentioned) is a more reliable determinant of how much time I will need to edit a manuscript.


    Comment by michellehutchinsonwordhelper — August 30, 2012 @ 9:42 pm | Reply

    • Essentially we are doing the same thing. I find it easier to conceptualize pages than words and after 28 years of counting pages, I have a lot of experience to fall back on. It also depends on how the editor charges. Some editors charge by the word, some by the page, some by the hour, and some by the project — it all depends on what they are comfortable with.


      Comment by americaneditor — August 31, 2012 @ 7:37 am | Reply

  10. Great article! I request a 10-page sample of a manuscript along with the complete word count. I don’t perform the searched mentioned, but I do review the sample for style, language, and edits. How long you spend in evaluating a manuscript before bidding on it?


    Comment by April Michelle Davis — September 5, 2012 @ 2:17 pm | Reply

  11. I know I’m a bit late in reading this but as I’ve fairly recently returned to freelance editing I found it very useful. My approach is similar, at least in principle, but not nearly as well thought out and organised, so thanks for the tips. One quibble – don’t you mean homophones (two words, one sound) not homonyms (one word, two meanings)? The former is a sure sign of a weak writer; the latter is not an editorial problem unless there’s an ambiguity.


    Comment by Jim — October 30, 2012 @ 8:42 am | Reply

    • Yes, I did mean homophones, which just proves that even an editor needs an editor :). I will make the correction. Thanks.


      Comment by americaneditor — October 30, 2012 @ 11:29 am | Reply

      • I think i noticed because by coincidence I had almost used homonym yesterday in a very similar context, i.e. what I look for when editing. As you say, we all need editors.

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Jim — October 30, 2012 @ 11:35 am | Reply

  12. Reblogged this on Wicked Dragon Writer Solutions and commented:
    What, exactly, are editors looking at when you hand over your precious written treasure? American Editor has a fantastic post on The Business of Editing: Evaluating a Manuscript, we thought was well worth sharing!


    Comment by Jami Gray — April 9, 2015 @ 5:31 pm | Reply

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