An American Editor

November 4, 2013

Business of Editing: One Pass, Two Pass(es)

It was said in a post on LinkedIn, that “real editing” requires two passes. I have to admit, I was confused by this affirmative statement. Why does “real editing” require two passes and not three passes? Or five passes? Or some other arbitrary number? Or even more than one pass?

Every professional editor knows that the more times you go over a manuscript, the more errors you will find, so what makes two the magic number? The truth is that there is no magic number. One pass can be as effective as two passes; everything depends on what the editor does in each pass over a manuscript; that is, the purpose of each pass.

There is one other consideration, which was not discussed in the LinkedIn post: compensation. For how many passes are you being compensated?

Most publishers and packagers recognize that they are paying for a single pass and do not expect more than that single pass. When they want more than one pass, the price rises.

Authors are often unaware of the issue. However, much of the complaint about poor editing is attributable to an insufficient number of passes by the particular editor. Some editors are more highly skilled than other editors and can accomplish more in a single pass than other editors can accomplish in multiple passes. Of course, editors who make use of editing tools (primarily macros) can resolve many of the issues that would normally be addressed in the first pass by use of these tools.

In the end, the number of passes comes down to the money. Each pass costs money and the more passes there are, the higher the price. One formula for charging for multiple passes used by those who charge by the page or the project is to charge 50% more for a second pass and 25% more for a third pass than the charge for the first pass. For example, if the first pass costs $1,000, a second pass would cost another $500, and a third pass another $250. With each pass it should go more quickly, thus the lower price for each subsequent pass, although that is not always true.

The issue is who bears the cost of additional passes? Some editors lack confidence in their ability to do a good job in the absence of multiple passes and thus are willing to absorb the cost of doing multiple passes. Other editors have learned how to meet or exceed the quality that would result from two or three passes in a single pass and are unwilling to absorb the cost of additional passes.

The unaddressed question is whether there is a true need for additional passes? This really depends on the skill and experience of the editor, as well as what tools the editor uses and how the editor uses those tools. Advocates of multiple passes take the position that additional errors are found on the subsequent passes and that alone demonstrates the need. But that is true even after a fourth or fifth pass, so if the rationale is that subsequent passes result in catching more errors, an editor who takes that position should continue doing passes until there are no more errors — whether that means three passes or 20 passes.

How many times have we read a book that has been reviewed by editors, authors, and proofreaders and still found errors? What can’t be pinpointed is how many passes are needed on a particular project in order to make the project 100% error-free. (This assumes that 100% error-free editing is possible, which, in my experience, it is not.) Are two passes or 12 passes needed? How many passes are also needed by the proofreader?

At some point there must be a reality check. Every time a pass occurs, it is either costing the editor or the client money. The editor who does multiple passes and does not charge for each pass quickly reaches the point of earning less than minimum wage. If the cost is being passed on to the client, the client may be unwilling to absorb the additional cost in the absence of a showing of significant return.

And significant return is the albatross.

The question that has to be asked is this: How likely is it that the proofreader will find the errors that the editor will find doing a subsequent pass? If the likelihood is high, then the client is overpaying by paying for a subsequent pass or the editor is losing money in the absence of a significant return. If the likelihood is low, then I would question the value of the editor’s original edit and/or of the proofreader.

One thing we haven’t done is defined what constitutes a pass over a manuscript. For some editors, the first pass is mechanical: coding, correcting dashes, eliminating extra spaces, and the like. For other editors, passes only refer to actual editing, not the mechanical stuff that can as readily be accomplished by macros or while editing.

If we agree that a pass means editing and not the mechanical aspects of the project, then one-pass editing is practical and doable, especially if a professional proofreader will be reviewing the material. If the mechanical constitutes a pass, then a two-pass edit is needed — the first pass to do the general mechanical aspects followed by a second pass of editing. In this case, the first pass should not, I think, incur a separate charge.

This illustrates another point: the need for clarity when using terms. Here we’ve gone through most of the essay and each of us has understood “pass” to mean something specific, but not necessarily what I intended it to mean within the context of this discussion. Where we may have disagreed before, now that “pass” has been defined, we may agree or continue to disagree, but we are doing so using the same base.

Ultimately, as this essay is about the number of editing passes required, there is no specific number required. How many editing passes a project requires or should receive depends on the editor’s skill and experience, whether the material will be professionally proofread, and the client’s willingness to pay for additional passes. I am of the firm conviction that no professional editor should routinely pay for subsequent passes herself. If a client is only willing to pay for a one-pass edit, then the editor is obligated to do the best the editor can in one pass.

Having said all that, some editors plan on multiple passes and have that already built into their fee. In such instance, multiple passes are justifiable because the client has agreed to pay for them by accepting the editor’s fee that includes one or more subsequent passes. Ultimately, professional editors need to provide the client with the best the editor can do within the parameters set by the client and without the editor absorbing costs that should be borne by the client.

Do you agree? How many editing passes do you do? Do you absorb the cost of subsequent passes or are they built into your base fee?

16 Comments »

  1. I work mostly on fiction and I give each MS three passes. I build that into the price I quote the author and I explain to them what they’re getting for their money (i.e. I explain my editing process). The first pass is a quick read-through to get some idea of the story arc, the characters, etc., and to identify any particular issues the text has that can be quickly cleaned up using F&R (e.g. numerals instead of spelled out numbers). The second pass is the biggest one, editing on screen using tracked changes. The third pass is to re-read the entire MS again, checking that the changes I’ve made work for the novel as a whole and to make sure I haven’t introduced errors of my own (very easily done when you’re doing a developmental edit at the same time as copy-editing).

    Even if I’m not copy-editing fiction I tend to give everything three passes. I need to read the text, then do the actual editing, then re-read to check my own work. Even if a budget is tight, I ALWAYS review my own work after I’m done (whether I’m paid for it or not) – it’s my reputation that’s at stake.

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    Comment by Averill Buchanan — November 4, 2013 @ 4:48 am | Reply

    • This is how I work, too, except when I am working directly with the author. In that case, I have him send the manuscript back to me after he’s implemented my changes, so I can be sure that the changes worked as expected. I do tend to pamper my authors, especially if they are self-publishing. I want them to know that their baby is safe with me. I am only going to help it grow into the book they always knew it could be.

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      Comment by V — November 9, 2013 @ 12:56 pm | Reply

  2. I offer one subsequent review to my clients. That is not a full pass, but an opportunity to review their interpretation of any tricky edits and to incorporate any responses to author queries. I often pick up small errors as I am going through that I also correct, but I don’t promise this. I expect the work to be professionally proofread after I have finished my work on it, although I know that most of the time it will not be. I’m OK with that, since what ultimately goes to print is not my responsibility. However, if I were to have a credit on a book my views would change since for most readers an error in print is the editor’s fault, and so regardless of who missed the error it would be attributed to me by name.

    As a copy editor, I feel that it is reasonable for me to offer one pass and one review in my fee. Any more than one pass would consititute development work in my view, and my rate for that is higher. Development work, for me, does not consititute multiple full passes, rather it allows for working on sections of text multiple times. It then requires a full pass by a copy editor.

    I think too many publishers and authors conflate the roles of different editors and expect one generic editor to do them all, often simultaneously.

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    Comment by Rebecca — November 4, 2013 @ 5:09 am | Reply

  3. At one time (before editing software), my main client, McGraw-Hill, wanted you to do two passes, first mechanical editing and then for sense. I found their method didn’t work for me. I did two passes, but what I actually did in each depended on the ms. If something was riddled with mechanical errors that would have caught my eye and interfered with overall flow, I did the mechanical stuff first. If it was pretty clean in terms of mechanical stuff, I read first for sense and picked up the occasional style problem at the same time, and I used the second pass to double-check everything. I would have liked a third pass, but that would have increased the cost too much.

    One thing I think editors need to determine before starting the job is whether or not the publisher will use professional proofreaders. Many don’t and expect the author to do that. I worked on one technical book and kept a detailed style sheet of complex technical terms I didn’t think the average proofreader would know but neglected spellings I thought any proofreader would be familiar with. After the job was done I discovered they let the authors do the proofreading, so the style sheet should have been the opposite of what I’d done.

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    Comment by Gretchen — November 4, 2013 @ 7:02 am | Reply

  4. I’m a single-pass girl. The way it’s phrased in my contracts is: “one editorial review of the manuscript constituting a full read-through and subsequent partial passes for detail finishing.”

    For copyediting, this translates into: I open the file and run various checking and flagging software over it to clean up a lot of junk I’d otherwise have to spot individually. If relevant, I’ll also format and style the manuscript, which gives me a chance to spot anomalies without reading the whole darn thing. Once set up, I start at page one and read to the end. At any point that makes me stumble, I fix or query, or flag for later if the item needs more than a split-second decision to act on or a few seconds to check online. After the read-through, I review the highlights and address them until all are gone, also reviewing the comments to ensure that all are courteous, professional, and clear. I finish up by running mechanical checks for consistency items, using various software tools.

    In most cases, I’m building one to three style sheets at the same time. That and cleanup of same is often a hefty part of the time involved.

    This approach captures 90-something percent of errors; I’m guessing in the 95-98 percent range based on a total asbence of complaints.

    I don’t read through a second time unless specifically requested (and paid for), because reading the same material back to back gives me a blind eye, and at most I will spot one or two more problems.

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    Comment by Carolyn — November 4, 2013 @ 9:06 am | Reply

  5. I’ve been through seven or eight passes with authors who continue to tinker with their manuscripts (and, yes, the subsequent passes are often not as productive as a thorough one or two passes). The key, for me, is a sharp-eyed proofreader doing a final look, and I’m lucky to work with one. I often tell her I leave some of the typos and other mechanical inconsistencies to test her skills. We laugh. Our manuscripts are squeaky clean but never perfect because there will always be those wake-you-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night misses.

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    Comment by Sandra Wendel — November 4, 2013 @ 9:44 am | Reply

  6. I do the equivalent of one editing pass and one proofreading pass on most of my editing projects: a thorough, careful edit; then a skim through a “clean” version of the ms. – with all my changes accepted – to see if I missed anything in the editing. I make sure my fees reflect doing more than a light pass through the document.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — November 4, 2013 @ 9:49 am | Reply

  7. For messy manuscripts, or big-budget books, the ideal is supposed to be four passes, each by a different editor. The substantive editor addresses the big issues — plot, characterization, setting, and so on. The stylistic editor focuses on making it a good, entertaining read. The copy editor checks spelling, grammar, consistency. And the proofreader checks the work of all the other editors, and the designer. We usually compress that to two edits (combining structural and stylistic) and a proofread, but each step is always done by a different editor. Different people are sensitive to different issues and will catch and correct more problems.

    For big-budget books the process can be much more intense. I was the fifth editor to work on a best-seller by a very well-known author, working on a specific set of problems with the pacing (and checking the work of those who came before me). There were three editors, and at least one proofreader, after me.

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    Comment by Greg — November 4, 2013 @ 9:50 am | Reply

  8. I usually do two passes through a manuscript. In the first edit I do the “serious” editing – making recommendations for sentence rewrites for clarity, pointing out inconsistencies in the manuscript, etc, as well as catching as many typos and grammar and punctuation errors as I can. For the second pass, I go through the document with all my changes accepted to make sure my changes make sense and to catch any remaining errors. I assume two passes when quoting a project.

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    Comment by Erica Ellis — November 4, 2013 @ 10:16 am | Reply

  9. The number of passes I perform depends on the manuscript and the author. I work with a lot of first-book authors and rarely have a draft that is much beyond rough. I discuss what the author wants to accomplish, what types of editing can be performed, and the individual and total service costs. I do single pass, comprehensive edits and charge accordingly. I carefully explain what will be reviewed during each type of edit and what can be achieved.

    Most of my clients say copy edit, want developmental, and expect 2-3 passes.

    The publishers I work with expect one pass from me, before the manuscript goes to a proofreader.

    I do give free – and endless – consults on my edits. Meaning, I will respond to emails and will engage in some phone chats to ensure the author’s queries about their edit are answered. Some people might think this is overkill, but I call it marketing and it brings me new clients, repeat clients, and great referrals – all just from being available following an edit.

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    Comment by Maria D'Marco — November 4, 2013 @ 10:30 am | Reply

  10. Interesting variety of comments here; everyone works differently, and there’s no “right” number of passes, but … I notice that a few people commented that they provide some pass(es) or service(s) for “free.” Nope! There’s nothing for free. If we do more work than we’re charging for, it just lowers the overall effective hourly rate we’re earning. If we give away some service with the hope of getting more work (as a form of marketing), it’s still not going to add to our income unless at some point we stop giving away extra work. I guess you could earmark some time/money for marketing toward editing freebies, but it seems to me that this is a very roundabout way of marketing. I’d rather earmark that time to beefing up my profile on various online sites where many clients find me or invest in other ways in marketing that isn’t just limited to a single client.

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    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — November 6, 2013 @ 10:50 am | Reply

  11. Back to the discussion on number of editing passes, I usually do one pass also, unless I’ve explicitly agreed to do more and charge more. I use the definition of one pass that Rich uses here; that is, I do several preliminary passes for consistency and mechanical corrections and one for reference matching (if necessary) and then do a thorough read. How do I know that’s enough? I’ve gotten some great feedback, for example, that the proofreader found hardly anything that slipped past me or that they’ve never seen such a clean manuscript after copyediting. When I have gotten negative feedback (if you’re a working copyeditor for many years, it’s inevitable), I’ve worked on finding ways to remedy whatever the shortcoming was, which usually has been by sharpening my preliminary mechanical passes. If it’s unreasonable feedback (as I think Rich’s client was giving him about the series commas), I have to question whether I want to continue working with the client.

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    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — November 6, 2013 @ 10:58 am | Reply

  12. It is so interesting to see how other people work! I’m a “two-pass gal” myself. When giving clients a quote for an average ce job, I calculate how long it will take me to do two passes and add another 15% to that. I also offer to do a proofreading (third) pass at my proofreading rate, which would be done after they’ve incorporated the changes from the copyedit. I encourage this, since I am very familiar with the ms at that point and can do the proofread pretty quickly.

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    Comment by Patty Smith — November 6, 2013 @ 2:27 pm | Reply

  13. When I am requested to submit an estimate, I do so with three passes in mind. If we need to negotiate the price, then we can then negotiate the number of passes involved in the editing. Some authors do not understand this, so I have to explain this in detail at the beginning and then reiterate it during the editing process.

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    Comment by April Michelle Davis — January 31, 2014 @ 3:39 pm | Reply

  14. I work almost exclusively with university presses, not individual clients. The problem here is that they dictate the terms of compensation – take ’em or leave ’em. They stipulate that two full passes are expected. However, the compensation barely meets the going rate for one full pass. I have a master’s degree in English, four years experience in working at a press, and over eight years of professional freelance editing experience. To make a livable wage by stacking and staggering enough projects, I simply cannot justify the second pass. Oftentimes, I’ve found that going back over multiple times can also lead to overthinking and overediting, rather than actually catching additional errors. To meet that second pass requirement, I simply perform some global searches for problem terms I’ve come across throughout the edit (e.g., “towards” rather than “toward” or frequent hyphenation or spelling errors).

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    Comment by Jeremy — May 21, 2015 @ 11:07 am | Reply

    • You might want to look at the three editing tools, Editor’s Toolkit Plus from The Editorium, EditTools from wordsnSync (my macro set), and PerfectIt from Intelligent Editing. (There is a special package price available; information can be found at http://www.wordsnSync.com.) Properly using these programs can increase speed and profitability and reduce the time spent and necessity for that second pass. There are several essays here at An American Editor on using these programs effectively.

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      Comment by americaneditor — May 21, 2015 @ 11:12 am | Reply


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