This question was asked, probably for the umpteenth time, on another editorial forum. I wondered then, as I wonder now, what the value is of a response like “4 to 6 pages an hour” or “10 pages an hour” — or any number.
I find surfing editorial forums interesting in so far as doing so reveals how colleagues think. Both questions and answers are revealing. Editorial colleagues want to be helpful to one another. Consequently, no matter the question, someone, if not many someones, will respond. I think that sense of community is heartening and helps make editing a great profession to be in. That surface impression of community helpfulness, however, begins to slip as the answers pile up.
A Great Question But of Little Value
“How many pages an hour do you edit?” is a great question that elicits a world of responses, the majority (possibly all) of which are valueless. While seeming to be a good way to measure one’s own efficiency and productivity, it isn’t. If my own speed is slower than the reported average and I consequently think I need to speed things up, I’ve simply elevated the responses to a status they do not deserve. If my speed is faster, must I be more efficient and productive? And if my speed is slower, must I be less efficient and productive? In reality, no.
Editing speed in itself is not indicative of anything, largely because the number leaves out myriad bits of necessary qualifying information. If I tell you that I edit, on average, 12 pages an hour, what have you learned about my editing? Nothing. Among other things you haven’t learned are what types of projects I handled; what the parameters were for those projects; what tools I use to speed up (or slow down) my editing; or, most importantly, how good an editor I am. I may be the greatest of all editors but only edit 4 pages an hour, or I could be the worst of all editors and edit 25 pages an hour. Conversely, I may be the worst of all editors but only edit 4 pages an hour, or I could be the best of all editors and edit 25 pages an hour.
The number of pages I edit each editing hour is a statistic with no meaning or value, even though colleagues and clients are intrigued by it. After all, if you can edit 20 pages an hour and I only edit 5 pages an hour, isn’t the client going to be better served economically by you than by me?
Type of Editing Matters
It matters whether my speed is reflective of my copyediting or of my developmental-editing speed. It also matters how I define the type of editing. For example, does copyediting include more than one editing pass over the manuscript? Does it include coding or styling of the manuscript? Do I include fact checking? What about references — are they APA or AMA style or some other convoluted style that requires a significant amount of work? And do I include formatting and verification of those references? The bottom line is that there are a number of variables in what we include and exclude as part of our definition. In the absence of having a uniform definition for editing type, the number of pages an hour that I can edit has no relevance in a discussion about how many pages an hour you should be editing.
What Makes a Page?
Another vital element that needs to be known is: What makes a page? Is it number of words, characters without spaces, characters with spaces, formatted pages, something else? And once the measure is chosen, how much of the measure makes a page? For example, is it 250 words, 300 words, or 350 words that make a page? Suppose there are a large number of words like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Do words like that count as one word? Two words? Three words? If you count characters, how many characters make a page?
Type of Manuscript Matters
It matters greatly whether my statement that I edit 12 pages an hour refers to editing advanced physics textbooks or cookbooks or illustrated children’s books or western novels. It matters whether the book is laden with photographs or with statistical tables. Without knowing what I am editing, how can you determine whether my speed is fast, slow, or middling?
Client Instructions Matter
Also relevant to determining the value of an editing speed are client instructions. It matters greatly whether I am instructed to simply run spellcheck and look for misspelled words or if I am asked to do a comprehensive edit that includes verifying Latin names for organisms against a particular database or to convert the form of measure the author uses to a more universally used measure. It matters whether there are 50 references or 1,000 references in a chapter and whether my instructions are to check each for accuracy and then format them, or accept them as accurate but format them, or just look for missing information and provide it but not format the references. (If you think a chapter cannot have 1,000 references, let me assure you that I often edit chapters with that number of references and more; I have edited chapters with nearly 2,000 references. Of course, such chapters tend to be “book length” in and of themselves.)
How Well Written Is the Manuscript?
Experienced editors know the importance of this bit of information. A poorly written manuscript slows editing to a crawl, whereas a well-written manuscript often means faster editing. Yet using terms like light, medium, and heavy to describe the difficulty of editing is not helpful because there are no universal definitions of these terms. In addition, there are gradations within each category — one editor’s medium-level edit may be another editor’s heavy edit.
Did You Consider This?
Okay, you tell me you know the answers to all of the previous questions and therefore are in a position to assign value to my being able to edit 12 pages an hour. But did you consider this? Do you know how many errors I create or miss as I edit that at the 12-page speed? This is important information. If I introduce an average of three errors per page or miss three errors per page, perhaps I need to slow my speed down because I am making/missing too many errors. Perhaps editing at 12 pages an hour is inappropriate for the material. On the other hand, if I am not introducing any errors and I am missing, on average, one error for every 5 pages, perhaps I am editing an appropriate speed or maybe can even edit a little bit faster.
Of course, there is the problem of what an error is.
The Universe of Editors
Another problem with the numbers generated by the main question is the representativeness of the responders. Getting 20 responses out of a universe of many thousands of editors is not very representative. The 20 responders may be the 20 best editors or the 20 worst editors or the 20 most middling editors. Or they may be a mix. But unless the responders are a match for you, their numbers are of no value. And even if they are a match for you, their number is too small to be statistically meaningful or indicative of average speed of editors irrespective of any other criterion.
The Bottom Line
Some questions we ask our colleagues will provide valuable information, but asking how many pages a colleague edits is not one of them. In the absence of universally agreed-upon terms and definitions to describe what we do, comparing my editing speed with your editing speed simply produces two unhelpful numbers.
When asked why they think this information is useful, editors often reply that if the majority of responders give a number that is faster than their number, then it is an indication that they are going too slow and need to take a look at how they can improve their number. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it is false reasoning. Because others are faster (or slower) than you is not an indication that there is anything wrong with your speed. There are too many variables.
Whatever my speed is, it is my speed and it is the speed at which I can produce a high-quality edit for a particular project. I keep detailed records and I know that over my 32 years of editing, I was able to edit some projects at what I think of as grand prix speeds and others at slower-than-turtle speeds. Speed was governed by the particular project, by my editing peculiarities, and by how much I could automate certain functions. This number was/is unique to me and meaningless to colleagues.
The One Thing Never to Do!
The one thing that no editor should ever do is estimate a project based on editing speeds claimed by colleagues. Estimates should always be based on your editing speed, your editing day, and your editing workweek. What a colleague does is at best anecdotal, not anything to use as a foundation for your work and business.
Richard Adin, An American Editor