“To write is human, to edit is divine.” These are the words of Stephen King, arguably one of the most successful novelists of all time and he certainly has a point. The best copy editors, after all, exist to sharpen the edges, make sense of everything and contextualise it into something digestible and engaging. It is, needless to say, a pretty unique job that requires a rather specific set of skills.
What does a copy editor do?
It would be overly simplistic and reductive to say “an editor edits.” Because, in actual fact, it’s a job that is going to mean very different things to a lot of people. Often, the job description will depend on the business and the job itself. In short, copy editor jobs are rarely straightforward.
For example, an editor of an online magazine might be responsible not only for editing copy but sorting out PR contacts, doing logistical work and even knocking about with photoshop to ensure the visuals are on point.
A copy editor, meanwhile, will generally specialise in taking a piece of text and making it shine. In both cases, how much the freelance editor in question charges will depend on several factors. These include what needs to be done with the text, how quick the requested turnaround is, the subject, format and publishing sector, and of course, how experienced the editor is.
Types of copy editing
Of course, there are different levels of editing with their own unique work structures to consider.
This is the most basic level of editing and is the level most people enter the profession at. You’ll be looking for spelling and grammatical errors as well as stylistic edits and suggestions.
Copyediting is the bread and butter of editing - you’re looking for more than typos, but not changing the story or structure. This often involved taking a final draft and putting a bit of spit and polish on it. This can be anything from highlighting awkward sentences to formatting. A good copy editor should also be able to edit and proof a piece at the same time.
Developmental editing is a more fundamental task that comes much earlier on in the writing work and editing process. This is a conceptual task that could even involve fleshing out a concept that’s only a few bullet points to start with. The lines between editing and writing can often start to blur here and that’s why developmental editing starts to get close to consulting rates.
Rough hourly rates
Note that the following per-hour rates assume freelance professionals running their own business and therefore include a factor to allow for costs that an employee does not have to pay but are paid for by their employer, such as holidays and sickness absence, National Insurance, pension provision, continuing professional development (CPD), office space and utility bills, software and subscriptions, and business equipment and supplies. The freelance hourly rates are therefore not directly comparable with hourly employee rates.
Proofreading - £25
Copyediting - £30
Development editing (including substantial rewrites) - £35
Project management (consulting) - £40
Of course, this is without factoring in seniority, but given my research and my own experience in the field, these seem like decent rough rates for somebody just starting out in the world of editorial creativity.
Of course, hourly rates don’t work for some people, so you might want to instead consider charging per page or per word. In that respect, rates will vary depending on the volume and complexity of the work. Is it simply proofreading or does it require in-depth advice? What’s the scale of the project and is the work technical or in a very specific niche? These are all questions you should be asking and they should all factor into the price.
If you charge for freelance editing per hour, you’re shifting the risk more towards the writer. No matter the word count, the editor will take however long it takes to do a good job. If the piece is in good shape, the author gets a good deal, but if the author has oversold how polished the chapter is, the editor knows they will be compensated for the extra work needed.
The risk in charging per hour is, unless a writer sets a cap on the number of hours allocated, the cost can balloon out of control. It’s up to the editor to give a fair estimate of how long it will take to work on the piece and advise their client if it’s taking longer than expected.
The standard in the editing world is charging per word. When you tell an editor you need a 7,500 word count (roughly 30 pages) non-fiction book chapter proofread—just typos, grammar, and spelling—the editor gets a good estimate of how long it will take. Charging per word is like charging per project because there is a shared amount of risk involved.
The editor is assuming they can proof 7-10 pages an hour. If the work isn’t as polished as the author says, it might take longer. If the work is in better shape, it might take less time. No matter the time needed to edit the chapter, the cost will remain the same because everything is tied to the word count (when submitted, of course) when you charge per hour.
Most common in freelance writing, development, and graphic design, per project/piece is another shared risk kind of pricing. As the freelancer you look at the scope of the work and estimate how long it will take you—plus other factors we’ll discuss in a moment—and come up with a price you think is fair.
All project-based work has the same risk for the freelancer—if you guess wrong and the project takes longer, you’re not getting more money (usually). When a project takes longer you won’t be able to take on as much work. If one project takes up the same amount of time two projects would take, you’re on the losing side of the equation. However, if you know how long a typical project takes, you can safely charge by project when setting freelance editing rates.
Important editing pricing factors
The final part of setting the right freelance editing rates for a freelance copy editing job is understanding what kind of writing you’re working with. There is a big difference between editing a children’s book and a peer-reviewed scientific paper. Different kinds of pieces need different kinds of expertise.
A freelance editor who works on journal articles for social sciences might be completely lost editing a physical science paper. Not only are the citation styles different, the language and writing styles are different as well. A science editor might have an equally hard time being a good editor for a casual article for a lifestyle magazine.
Are you editing documentation for an aircraft technical manual or a piece on the latest food trends for a magazine? You need to gauge both how much to charge and how long editing will take based on how hard the piece is to read and work with per project.
If you’re doing copy editing, and especially developmental editing, it helps to be familiar with the topic. It’s not essential to know everything a subject matter expert (SME) does when setting freelance editing rates, but it doesn’t hurt. Familiarity helps you suggest other ways to say something without accidentally changing the meaning.
Technical topics can be extremely hard to wade through. They have terms you need to be familiar with and stylistic conventions that might seem strange—or wrong—to non-technical editors. This means it will take you longer to work on the piece, even once you are familiar with the space, so you can’t take on as much work.
You need to adjust your rates to account for not being able to take on as many clients compared to someone who is editing a less-technical piece.
A non-fiction book is different than fiction, business different from science. This plays to both the complexity of the pieces, but the mindset of both authors and readers.
Copy editing for academics is different than romance authors. Both kinds of works have their own unique challenges, and the audience’s expectations of the book or paper are very different. A good fiction book editor will use their copy editing to make sure characters are relatable and make sure inconsistencies don’t pop up between scenes. Scientific papers are written in a completely different style and have technical terms to double check.
Mixing up these styles wouldn’t get you repeat business from that client. When you decide to take on an editing job, you need to be sure you can handle it. Not just the timeline or the size of the work, but what kind of work is it in the first place.
Don’t take editing jobs you aren’t prepared to do well or have the expertise to do well. Instead, take the time to improve your editing skills and diversify your experience before taking on more challenging projects.
And always remember that no matter the freelancer, rush jobs cost extra. No one has a special rate when you have a lot of time to work on something. That just means you can spread out the work over a longer period of time, which lets you take on more work.
Before setting your rates in stone, you might want to have a quick look around Creativepool and LinkedIn and reach out to some experienced editors, asking them about how and why they charge what they charge. Don’t be shy – everyone has to start somewhere and they will more than likely be happy to help. You might even get lucky and have some work thrown your way.
There’s no right answer
Ultimately, pricing your work and setting your value as a freelance editor is something you’ll learn in time. The more jobs you do, the more feedback you get and the more comfortable you start to feel in your own skin, the less confusing it will all become.
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