The Practical Editor:
Define Your Terms, Then Negotiate
by Erin Brenner
Recently, I saw a job ad that advertised for a copyeditor for a 5,500-word academic article. The article had already been accepted for publication, according to the ad, and the author was looking for a light copyedit, most likely to make a good impression on the assigning editor.
Even if the article will be edited in-house, this is a good call. The cleaner the copy, the more likely the assigning editor will hire this writer again.
I have an occasional client for whom I do such work, and she is thrilled with the results. The copyediting not only produces cleaner copy, it helps her to be more confident. The editing has led to her receiving more assignments. And why not? Assigning editors are busy folks, too, and the easier you make it to publish your article, the more likely they’ll call you again for another.
What’s a Page?
Back to the ad. The author is willing to pay $9 a page for the project. Does this sound good to you? Before you say yes, ask yourself this very important question:
What does the author mean by page?
Many folks in the publishing industry define a manuscript page as 250 words, and the Editorial Freelancers Association encourages that definition.
However, you can define a page in whatever way makes the most sense to you. As Ruth Thaler-Carter notes in a previous blog post (see The Commandments: Thou Shall Establish the Rules of Engagement Before Beginning a Project), Rich Adin uses a character count.
The key is to ensure you and your client are using the same definition of a page.
Let’s say the author from the ad is using the 250-word definition. That’s a 22-page document, resulting in a $198 payday:
5,500 words/250 words per page = 22 pages
22 pages × $9 per page = $198
If you can edit seven pages an hour, you’ll complete the project in 3.14 hours. Even if you round up your total to 4 hours to account for administration work on the project, you’ll earn $49.50 an hour. That’s a good rate in my book.
Even if the editing take longer, say four pages an hour, you’ll spend 5.5 hours on it. Round it up to 6.25 hours, and you’ll earn $31.68 an hour. Depending on your circumstances, this could still be a good rate. (However, it’s always a good idea to calculate your required effective hourly rate [see Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand] ahead of time.)
But let’s say the author means one page is equal to a page in the Word file, not an uncommon occurrence. How many pages is this according to our 250-word definition? The total will vary greatly depending on several variables, including font, font size, leading, length of paragraphs, and margins. If you haven’t seen the document or been given a page count, you’re taking a risk on being able to make a decent hourly rate on the project.
How much of a risk?
In Ariel 12-point type, with a couple of boldfaced headers per page and a 1-inch margin all around, 5,500 equals about 10 pages. At $9 a page, I’d earn $90 on this job. If I edit at seven pages an hour, I’m earning just $22.50 an hour. If I edit at four pages an hour, $14.40 an hour. Ouch!
And let’s not forget that this is an academic article; it’s very likely the article includes citations. Are these footnotes or endnotes, which aren’t automatically included in Word’s word count? If you’ll be responsible for editing those citations, your editing pace and subsequent hourly rate dropped again.
Define and Negotiate
It’s crucial, then, that you’re using the same definitions as your client. This could be a good, quick job or a miserable money loser. Ask your author the following:
- How do you define a page? Offer your own definition and see if they’ll accept it.
- What do you mean by “light copyedit”? Try to discover what the author specifically wants done to the article.
- What are my responsibilities regarding citations? Are they included in the word count?
- Can I see the entire manuscript first? Determine for yourself whether you can edit it to the client’s satisfaction in a timeframe that earns you a decent paycheck.
At this point, you should have enough information to determine whether that $9 per page is acceptable. If the answer is no, it’s time to negotiate:
- Tell the author how much you would charge to do what’s needed or wanted. Emphasize what the eventual outcome of such an edit would be. Sure the manuscript will be cleaner, but so what? Your job is to explain the “so what”: higher quality leads to better reception by the assigning editor, a greater chance for more work, a more positive reception by readers, and a rise in the author’s reputation.
- Tell the author what you would do for the offered rate. If the author is truly cash-strapped but wants your services—and you want to work with this author—you could do less editing for less money.
Define your terms with the client. Negotiate for what you want. And if you and the author can’t agree, gracefully let them go on their way.
Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is also a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.