Two people recently asked me pretty much the same question: Why should I bother using an editor, and how much would it cost? The true value of an editor is not just to make sure your grammar and commas are correct. For that, you can hire a proofreader for around $20–$35 per hour, depending on prevailing local rates and the nature of the copy that you need to have checked.
What professional editors really do is help you think clearly and save you from embarrassment, or worse. This sentence from the current bestseller, Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, is a perfect example of what a truly good editor should catch (but didn’t, obviously):
“Results of the analysis found the menu to meet or exceed Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) requirements of nineteen of the twenty-four vitamins, minerals and trace elements, and the remaining few (panthothenic acid, sodium, magnesium, copper, chromium and molybdenum) can be replaced with a supplement.”
See the problem? There are six of “the remaining few,” cited in parentheses, and that doesn’t sync with “nineteen of the twenty-four,” because 19 + 6 = 25. This is so clearly incorrect that I won’t even quibble with using “found to meet or exceed,” rather than the more active wording of “meets or exceeds.”
The Goal: Clear, Consistent, Concise and Correct
However, my guess is that someone was instructed merely to proofread that manuscript, not copyedit Atkins’ book. There are significant differences in what are widely known as the levels of editing, and there are also disparate definitions. The sidebar below illustrates my own short version of what an editor does, depending on what the author or publisher requests, which often depends on time allowed, budget, permanence (or not) of the publication and the author’s ego.
The Real Value of an Editor Isn’t in Correcting Commas
Editors will vary in what they consider appropriate in the continuum of copyediting, and any two editors will edit slightly different things, because some decisions at this level are subjective. But every editor always has two roles:
- To act as the reader’s advocate by making the copy easier to read and understand
- To make the author look better to the reader.
Experts have a tendency to get too close to their work, thinking they must convey every detail. They often bury the key point—why is this significant and why should the reader care?—so far down in the document that people quit reading before they even get to that point. An experienced editor who understands the subject matter and reads for content, not just correctness, can often make the difference whether the work gets published or not by helping the author focus on what the most important information really is and making sure the info sticks to the key points and what supports those points.
Here are a couple of real-world examples of what I mean:
- One long-time client who is a physician and a medical informatics consultant commented, “You not only fixed what was there, but perceived that there might be some ideas that were not in the manuscript, but should be brought forward.”
- A subscriber to my Health News Monitor newsletter put it this way recently, after reviewing the first magazine article I edited for her: “[Now] I clearly see the value of a professional editor — not for typos, but for issues of clarity and organization.”
What Experienced Editors Charge
Editing specialized content, such as something about health psychology or medical informatics or devices, is a form of technical editing. Full-time freelance rates average (mean) U.S. $65 per hour according to the latest national rate survey of members of the American Medical Writers Association, with more experienced editors getting up to $85 per hour or even $100 per hour if they have MDs, PhDs, or highly specialized knowledge and experience. Some editors charge by the page, and the mean rate for full-time, freelance editors who are AMWA members in 2002 was U.S. $17 per page. In estimating or bidding, all editors basically still calculate what they’re earning per hour, regardless of how they bill. (Writers typically charge $85–$150, sometimes more, depending on the nature of the writing.)
Hourly rates aren’t the real indicator of what you’ll pay, though, because you don’t know how long it will take the editor until you get an estimate, a firm bid or an invoice. It might not take more than an hour or two for a relatively short document or section, yet carefully editing scientific or technical copy can be slow-going on the first round. (Even if you don’t have the luxury of two rounds of editing, it’s always best to leave time for a final proofreading phase after you’re sure there won’t be any further changes to the content.)
As a rough guess, you can figure that a conscientious editor will complete four to six pages an hour if the content is dense or technical or as many as 12 to 15 pages per hour if it’s less so. A final round will take less time, of course, often ranging from between 15 and 25 pages per hour, perhaps even faster if you had two earlier rounds of editing and the final round is just for proofreading. (See “Useful Info,” below, for more info about estimating editing time, thus your cost.)
Most editors are willing to bid a flat fee, on a project basis, especially when they’ve worked with an author once or twice before, so they can gauge how much editing that particular writer’s work is likely to need. Many will ask for a few sample pages, so they can base their quote on the actual project. Note: If it’s a rush job, they may charge 10%–50% extra.
Two final things to consider in deciding the true value of an editor to you:
- What’s your time and your colleagues’ time worth in relying on peer editing (that typically results in copy with errors or less polished than it could be)?
- What are the rippling effects of submitting or disseminating something you wrote that has obvious errors, whether nitpicky grammatical errors or, worse, inconsistent data?
Concerns About Ethics
One academic psychologist recently told me that all psychologists must know how to write well to get their PhDs and that none of them are ever likely to hire editors, because having someone edit their work would be unethical. I can assure you that many of the journal articles, abstracts, and conference posters you read, and many grant proposals as well, have been at least professionally copyedited. The American Medical Writers Association, among other organizations for writers and editors, would not need to exist otherwise, because nearly all of its 4,000 members do exactly this kind of work, either for an employer or freelance. The number who actually ghostwrite the articles or abstracts, based on rough notes from a principal investigator or raw data, might alarm you.
AMWA, too, has a code of ethics, plus an official Position Statement on the Contributions of Medical Writers to Scientific Publications, which says:
“The American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) recognizes the valuable contributions of biomedical communicators to the publication team. Biomedical communicators who contribute substantially to the writing or editing of a manuscript should be acknowledged, with their permission, and with disclosure of any pertinent professional or financial relationships. In all aspects of the publication process, biomedical communicators should adhere to the AMWA Code of Ethics.”
Rarely do the ghostwriters’ names appear in the credits in the real world, of course. However, writing is another matter, for another time, and I’m not advocating for ghostwriting anyway. Personally, I can’t imagine even being able to do that, frankly. Here, I’m talking only about editing. Developmental editing can go far enough for the editor to be considered contributing substantially, but not always. Copyediting or substantive editing as I’ve defined each of those previously and as they are commonly defined by other professionals, associations and industry standards, that is not contributing to the content substantially, but merely saving the publisher’s copy editor’s time, increasing your chances of getting published, making the authors and the publisher look better, and, most of all, serving the readers.
“Benchmarks for Estimating Editing Speed” from Corrigo, the newsletter of the Technical Editing special-interest group (SIG) of the Society for Technical Communication. Note: The Council of Science Editors (CSE) sells a similar report for U.S. $12 ($8 to CSE editors), titled Levels of Technical Editing. Both of these are based on metrics devised by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 1980 and updated for current practices and technology.
Salary.com results (accessed May 15, 2003) for staff salaries for all kinds of editors, not just medical, scientific or technical, in Palo Alto, California:
- Editor: A typical editor working in Palo Alto, CA 94306 earns a median base salary of $56,784, according to our analysis of data reported by corporate HR departments. Half of the people in this job earn between $49,193 and $67,363.
- Sr. Editor: A typical senior editor working in Palo Alto, CA 94306 earns a median base salary of $86,757, according to our analysis of data reported by corporate HR departments. Half of the people in this job earn between $72,314 and $103,270.
Comparable rates for Cleveland, Ohio:
- Editor: A typical Editor working in Cleveland, OH earns a median base salary of $50,074, according to our analysis of data reported by corporate HR departments. Half of the people in this job earn between $43,381 and $59,403.
- Sr. Editor: A typical Sr. Editor working in Cleveland, OH earns a median base salary of $76,506, according to our analysis of data reported by corporate HR departments. Half of the people in this job earn between $63,769 and $91,068.
- American Medical Writers Association Web site, accessed May 15, 2003.
- Atkins, Robert C., M.D. Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution. New York: Avon Books (HarperCollins Publishers), 2002, page 98 (paperback edition).
- Council of Science Editors Web site, accessed May 15, 2003.
- Salary.com search conducted May 15, 2003.
- Technical Editing SIG Web site, Society for Technical Communication, accessed May 15, 2003
What an Editor Does
Proofreading Correct indisputable errors only:
Checks for misspelling; typos; incorrect punctuation; and incorrect grammar, such as subject-verb disagreement, errors in word usage, and such.
Copyediting Check style and consistency:
Proofreads, but also watches formatting, such as consistency in titles, subsection titles, type face and type style (italic, bold), and parallel construction in lists and headings. Fact-checking for what should be commonly understood information. Makes sure the manuscript conforms to whatever style guide the publisher expects, e.g., AMA, APA, AP, or Chicago. Cross-checks citations with reference list, figures, and tables. Suggests improvements in syntax for clarity and logical flow, but only queries the author, doesn’t substantively change content.
Substantive Clarify, tighten, and polish:
Does all of the previous, but also makes relatively minor changes or recommends what to delete, rearrange, reword, or rephrase to eliminate potential confusion, wordiness, triteness, and inappropriate or confusing jargon or made-up words. Queries the author about apparent gaps or contradictions in info and issues inadvertently raised but not addressed by the author. Polishes the prose by suggesting clearer phrasing, and a smoother, better flow of ideas. May fine-tune copy by multiple authors so it achieves a more consistent tone.
Developmental Help develop the article, report, or book:
Works with the author from the idea, raw material, or early draft stage to help develop the manuscript, advising on organization of material and format, perhaps proposing supplemental material, including appendices, graphics, photos, tables, charts, or figures. Likely to suggest revisions and rewrite or rearrange sections, but does not necessarily proofread or copyedit.
Judith is a journalist and an editor in Santa Cruz, Calif. You can visit her Web site at www.polishedprose.com or e-mail her at email@example.com.
© 2003, Judith Broadhurst, Polished Prose. All rights reserved.
This article is reprinted with permission from Judith Broadhurst (www.polishedprose.com/valueofeditors.html). Accessed Aug. 24, 2003.