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.

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