An American Editor

April 13, 2010

In Editing, It’s the Little Things That Count

The “little things” has multiple meaning in editing. It means such things as consistency, correct spelling, correct grammar. It also means those numerous, repetitive tasks that take only a second or two but which add up to a significant amount of time. In today’s conversation, I want to address — or at least begin addressing — the latter meaning.

Every editor knows that time is truly money. The longer it takes to accomplish a task, the less money the editor earns. Because of this, many editors prefer to charge an hourly rate. The problems with an hourly rate are several: First, if your hourly rate is $25, whether you work 1 hour or 100 hours, the most you will earn is $25 an hour. Second, most clients have a budget, a maximum they are willing to pay for a project. If the client estimates that the editing should take 100 hours, the client’s budget is for that 100 hours and it is difficult to get a client to pay more than the budgeted amount. Thus your work is constrained by the need to not exceed the client’s budget.

Other editors prefer to work on either a per-page or project fee basis. Here the effective hourly rate (i.e., the total $ charged ÷ the total number of hours worked) fluctuates. If the project is a 1,000-manuscript page project and the per-page rate is $5, the client knows that the cost will be $5,000, regardless of whether the editor takes 200 or 75 hours to complete the editing. But there is an incentive on the part of the editor to be more efficient because the editor’s effective hourly rate can be high or low depending on the editor’s efficiency. If that project takes 200 hours, the effective hourly rate is $25; but if the editor finishes the project in 75 hours, the effective hourly rate is $66.67. The flip side, of course, is that if the project takes 300 hours to edit, the effective hourly rate is $16.67.

Consequently, the per-page and project fee systems encourage editor efficiency whereas the hourly system discourages it.

How do editors become more efficient? That is always a hot topic in editor discussion groups and has many answers. There are some things that cannot be made more efficient. For example, deciding whether a sentence makes sense cannot be automated. On the other hand, there are lots of tools available to an editor to increase efficiency, some free, some costly, and some between free and costly.

Before taking the plunge into tools and software (which I’ll save for another day), I know some convincing needs to take place. Consider this example: U.S. versus United States. There are times when one is appropriate and the other is not, just as there are times when it could be either way except that the author or client has set a preferred usage.

In the U.S., one U.S. senator can prevent ninety-nine colleagues from discussing legislation that benefits the U.S. as a whole.

Under usual circumstances, most of us would change U.S. to United States as follows:

In the United States, one U.S. senator can prevent ninety-nine colleagues from discussing legislation that benefits the United States as a whole.

How do you make this correction now? Most likely you use your mouse or keyboard to select U.S. and then type United States. How long does it take to do this twice? Time it for yourself, but be sure to start with your hands in your normal editing position when you are reading the manuscript and time from the moment of discovery.

Granted this takes but a few seconds, but how many of those seconds does it take to add up to a significant amount of time over the course of editing a manuscript. And remember that there are lots of these types of changes that have to be made. Can this correction, and similar corrections, be made more efficiently? Yes, with the right tools and knowhow.

Think about the efficiency of editing on paper as opposed to editing on a computer. I remember the “hard copy” days and how difficult it was to keep track of all the changes that needed to be made. And what a problem it was if you discovered 50 pages into a manuscript that “RJ Applewood” should have been “RJ Applewind”  and “PJ Applewood” should have been PJ Aplewood.” Good luck finding all the incorrect instances. How much easier online editing has made the process.

Not only has the computer made the process easier, especially for the little things, but it has enabled development of tools that are designed specifically for or can be adapted to editing that will speed up the routine things editors need to do and improve accuracy. They won’t make a poor editor a good editor, but they can help turn a good editor into a much better editor. I’ll discuss some of the tools I use in another article.


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