A lot of editors charge by the hour, so people hiring them naturally wonder how long it’ll take an editor to clean up their copy. And the answer is unsatisfactory, because it’s almost universally:

“It depends.”

If you want editing done right, you need to pay for three phases: substantive editing, copy editing and proofreading.

Stopwatch picture for article on how long should editing takeHere’s a look at how long these phases typically take.

Substantive editing: 250-700 words per hour

Substantive editing, my specialty, takes the longest because it involves the most variables. On any given project I might have to:

  • Edit heavily, if for instance the author is not a professional writer.
  • Do a lot of consulting, coaching and general hand-holding with the writer.
  • Insert a bunch of coding or do a lot of formatting in a document.
  • Track down photos, set up photo shoots, create Excel graphics or write a bunch of captions.
  • Fact-check a bunch of citations and references and make sure they are in the publisher’s style.
  • Manage a pool of writers and an editorial calendar.

Substantive editors command the highest rates because they bring the most skills to the game, namely the ability to work a story from the idea phase to the reporting phase to the writing phase and then ensure it all comes together in a cohesive narrative that reflects the publication’s voice and serves its target audience.

Substantive editors generally earn about $50 to $60 an hour, though the best ones might rake in considerably more.

Copy editing: 700 to 1,500 words per hour

Copy editing, which I did for newspapers for more than 20 years, can be done considerably faster because the substantive edit should already be out of the way. Depending on the publication, the copy editor might:

  • Insert all the coding or formatting.
  • Write all the headlines, decks and captions.
  • Confer with the substantive editor about any inconsistencies.
  • Double-check all the math (a big deal in financial articles).
  • Shepherd the piece through the production process.

With all these extra duties, copy editors can rack up a lot of hours as well, so keep that in mind as you ballpark how much an editing project is going to cost you.

Copy editors usually earn about $40 to $50 an hour on average, though financial and scientific editors often earn more.

Proofreading: 1,500 to 2,500 words per hour

Proofreading is the quickest step in the process, though it too can become time-consuming if the proofreader has to deal with several rounds of revisions.

Proofreading rates can go from $25 an hour to $50 an hour depending on the client and the editor.

Yes, you can save money by cutting out one or more of these layers of editing, but you have to ask yourself: how much is your credibility worth? The Internet did not render this three-step process obsolete; it only made it a lot more tempting to cheat.

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