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Benchmarks for Estimating Editing Speed

David W. McClintock

Speed-reading experts estimate that the average reader can absorb about 250 words per minute. They promote techniques that allegedly boost that rate to nearly 1,000 words per minute. Unfortunately, some folks may expect similar speeds for technical editing. After all, isn't editing like reading? If so, a 20-page white paper should be edited in 20 minutes - or less.

But editing must surely take longer than reading. Maybe it takes, say, five times longer. That would mean editing about 12 pages per hour. Sounds good. Just read the page five times, and out pop the edits.

Actually, that heuristic may hold true for a simple edit, but substantive editing takes more time - 15 to 60 minutes per page, some experts say. So, how long can editing take? I suppose it's safe to say that editing shouldn't take longer than writing. (Not counting wordsmiths who write faster than human beings can read.)

In the table below, I present some practitioners' numerical benchmarks for estimating editing time. These speeds were collected from an informal survey of the STC's TE SIG online discussion group and some simple Web searches. Note that in the table, I've converted everyone's estimates into words per hour (WPH) instead of pages per hour.

Benchmark Editing Speeds (WPH) at Three Levels of Detail
Estimator Heavy Medium Light
Jean Hollis Webera 500 - 1,000 2,000 - 3,000 4,000 - 5,000
Amy Einsohnb 250 - 500
1,000 - 1,750
500 - 750
1,000 - 1,500
500 - 1,000
1,500 - 2,250
Jody Roesc 1,000 1,500 3,000
Gary Conroyc 500 - 1,000 2,000 4,000
W. Thomas Wolfed 416 1,250 1,666
Mary Jo Davidc 750 - 1,250
Richard Ketrone 500 - 1,000
Joanna Williamsc 5,000

a. Original estimates given in terms of 500 words per page.
b. Original estimates found in The Copyeditor's Handbook (see Resources on page 3). Top row assumes difficult text; second row assumes standard text.
c. Original estimates cited in pages per hour (250 words per page assumed).
d. Original estimates given in pages per day (six hours per day assumed).
e. Original estimate cited 15 to 30 minutes per page (250 words per page assumed).

Here are my reasons:
  • Word counts are universally accepted in this world of diverse printed and on-screen page sizes.
  • Word counts may be more persuasive to clients in substantiating longer-than-expected schedule estimates.
  • Word counts support the editor's focus on words, not pages.
  • Word counts of selections or full documents are easily run from modern word processors - that's how I cut this article down from 2,996 words to 1,000!
In the table, the levels of editing - heavy, medium and light - represent a spectrum of editorial interventions, where a heavy edit involves the most rewriting and content-level corrections and a light edit involves only the most superficial proofing of glaring errors. The key is to interpret these intentionally vague categories in terms of your own skills and text. For your reference, the estimators mentioned a variety of technical document types, including online help systems, manuals, white papers, proposals, Web pages, release notes, installation guides, Web-based and paper-based training materials, post-project reviews, marketing copy, requirements, and needs analyses.

With these benchmarks in mind, the best way to estimate editing time is to do the following:
  • Calculate a rough time estimate based on a word count and your prescription for a heavy, medium or light edit; use one of the benchmark ranges as a starting point.
  • Start editing, keeping track of the number of words you mill per hour or sitting.
  • Compare your measurements against the benchmarks.
  • Discover through trial and error your personal word processing speed - the number of words your brain can mill in an hour.

Your personal word processing speed is the uncertain factor in our formula - complementing the discrete pile of words you are given to edit. That speed is subject to all the functions that make editing slower than speed-reading: checking for rule violations (spelling, punctuation, grammar), consistency, parallel construction, verb strength, accuracy, logic, persuasiveness, rhythm, tone, appropriateness, flow and many other nuances.

Thinking about personal speed means acknowledging a universal limitation: You can think fast, but you can't think faster. (For this insight, I thank the Oracle character in Tom DeMarco's The Deadline: A Novel on Project Management.) Coffee may help, but when you edit, the tyrannical ticking of the clock cannot make your brain process words at a quicker rate. As Mary Jo David of Write Away Enterprises, based in Plymouth, Mich., wrote to me, "No matter what I do, my editing 'average' always seems to be anywhere from three to five pages an hour." I'm the same way - my mill is often set in heavy-editing mode.

The trick to estimating is to identify your brain's preferred rate of word processing - not the optimum, two-espresso brain speed, but something more comfortable and sustainable. Just as you are unique, so must your estimates be unique to your skills and the constraints imposed on you. Once you've determined your personal word processing speed, you'll find it easier to schedule your work when the ideal amount of time your estimate calls for is compressed by an external party's deadline. Shifting out of heavy-editing mode should become easier for you the more you've measured yourself in the other modes.

I hope this brief article contributes to your skill at predicting the future. Please e-mail me with your insights at david at wordsupply.com. I'm just beginning to study and write on the topic.

At right, to compensate for everything I haven't mentioned, I refer you to some books and online resources. I especially recommend the helpful articles that Robin Cormier and Jean Hollis Weber have posted online - read these classics for a much more logical approach to the subject - and Michelle Corbin's intriguingly useful Java-based calculator for editorial times.

Based in New York, David edits and writes through his firm, Wordsupply.com . By day, he is a senior editor for Dorset House Publishing. He sends heartfelt thanks to all the TE SIG members who e-mailed him their insights.


  1. Conroy, Gary. "Estimating the Time Required for a Documentation Project." http://www.gary-conroy.com/library/weekly/aa020701a.htm
  2. Corbin, Michelle. "JavaScript Editing Project Calculator." http://ebailey.home.mindspring.com/mlcorbin/edit-calc.html
  3. Cormier, Robin A. "Estimating Editorial Tasks: A Five-Step Method." The Editorial Eye. http://www.eeicommunications.com/eye/estimate.html
  4. Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor's Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2000.
  5. Hackos, JoAnn T. "Dependency Calculator." http://www.comtech-serv.com/dependency_calculator.htm
  6. Hackos, JoAnn T. Managing Your Documentation Projects. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1994.
  7. Rude, Carolyn D., David Dayton, and Bruce Maylath. Technical Editing, 3rd ed. New York: Longman, 2002.
  8. Weber, Jean Hollis. "How long does editing take?" Technical Editors' Eyrie: Resources for technical editors. http://www.jeanweber.com/about/howlong.htm
  9. Wolfe, W. Thomas. "Estimating Time." http://www.technicalwritingbywolfe.com/Estimating_Time.htm

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