The Editing Life Laid Bare: A Brutal Look at the Statistics

This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for weeks now, but true to The Editing Life, I simply haven’t been able to find the time. Or the brain cells, for that matter. But today, I’m finally going to do it. I’m going to show you exactly what it looks like to be an editor, not with words, which would perhaps be the obvious choice, but with numbers. Why numbers? Well, nothing puts things into perspective quite like seeing the break-down of exactly what goes into something. Or so I’ve heard.

Now, I’ll be the first to claim that numbers are not my friend, so these “statistics” I’m about to lay down are only about as accurate as my math. And sometimes, that’s not terribly accurate at all. But even though it’s not going to be an exact science, it should still give you a snapshot of what my life as an editor truly looks like. The key words there are “snapshot” and “my,” meaning that this is in no way a comprehensive look at all the various things I work on as an editor, nor is it all inclusive for every editor. Others will be different. But based on experiences I’ve heard recounted from fellow editor friends, this is pretty close to what it looks like more often than not.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

How many of you have heard us (us = editors) say that we work on multiple projects at once? Most, if not all, right? It’s a pretty common fact. But what does “multiple” truly mean? Well, cast your eyes over that photo at the top of the post. That’s my actual desk. No comments on the content/mess, please. 😉

See the lines of pink around the edges? Those are post-it notes. And yes, I realize it looks like an exercise in insanity, but trust me, it’s actually a very efficient method. Now, count them. How many did you get? Here’s the thing, each one of those post-its represents a project in various stages of completion. Not the stages, the project. I purposely kept it distant so you can’t see the names, but yeah, that’s what it means when editors say they’re working on multiple projects at once. Daunting, isn’t it?

On top of constantly being buried up to our eyeballs in work, we’re also generally underpaid. I’ve featured an article on this before, written by the lovely Cait Spivey, which can be found here. But let’s actually turn the microscope on it and dissect what that means in terms of my life.

On average, a manuscript clocks in somewhere around 75,000 words. Some will be more, some less, but that’s a good solid representative of a standard novel. Every editor has a different way they figure out what to charge. Common methods are by page, by hour, or by word. If you’ve looked at my freelance editing page, you know I charge by the word. So a full edit on that 75,000 word manuscript runs $1500. Ouch, right? That’s a hard number to stomach for most authors, and I get it. It seems really expensive. Until you break it down to see what you’re actually paying me for.

75,000 words is roughly 300 pages (according to the age-old school-paper formula of 250 words = a page). Most editors I know that are worth their salt average a pace of about 6-7 pages an hour for line edits. (I’ll cover why it takes this long in a future post.) So 300 pages equates 50 hours of work. If we take that $1500 fee from above and divide it by 50 hours, you get about $30 an hour. That seems like good money, doesn’t it? And in fact, that’s considered average for a professional freelance editor according to the Freelance Editor’s Association.

But we’re not done yet.

That 50 hours is solely what I spend during one round of line edits. There are things that happen before and after that stage. Remember, I said that $1500 rate was for a full edit, which consists of structural edits, line edits, and proofreading. So let’s factor in those things.

Structural editing is the process of reading a manuscript, analyzing it, and then diagnosing and finding solutions to any problems that are weakening the overall story. Tell me, does that sound like an especially fast process to you? It shouldn’t. If an editor is actually qualified and trained to do this (and not all of them are), it looks like this: reading — not just speed-reading, but really truly reading and seeing every letter and space and punctuation mark on the page — and analyzing 300 pages takes me approximately 2-3 full days, so, at 8 hours per day, that’s 24 hours of reading time, give or take. Figuring out what, exactly, is affecting the manuscript and how to deal with it will vary, but let’s say another 3-ish hours is spent on the mental gymnastics of curing an ailing story, and then another 2-3 are spent compiling all my notes and thoughts into an edit letter explaining all that to the author. These are super rough, ball-parky type figures because I don’t think I’ve ever truly tracked this part of the process. Anyway, when it’s all said and done, that’s about 30 hours invested into just the structural edits. And that’s without any follow-up discussion or brainstorming with the author, things that often occur after I hand them the aforementioned edit letter.

Proofreading is the last step and is probably the fastest portion of the process for me. Most projects, I can average 10-15 pages per hour. So if the manuscript is in good condition, that’s only about 20 more hours of work. However, that’s for a base proofread. If I have to do an editorial proofread (which is somewhere between a line edit and a proofread) the pace drops dramatically.

So, where are we at with our project overall? We have 30 hours for structural edits, 50 hours for line edits, and 20 for proofreading. That’s 100 hours of effort from start to finish, bare minimum. Suddenly, that $1500 flat fee isn’t looking so grand, is it? That’s only $15 an hour. Minimum wage in many larger cities.

I should also point out that most projects take at least two rounds of line edits to truly shine, which, if you’re lucky, is only an additional 30 hours of labor, and there are probably easily 20 hours of time invested in various discussions and emails and hand-holding with the author. Making the total time expended on any full project easily 150 hours. Honest to God. What does that make my hourly wage? $10 an hour. You can flip burgers in some states for more than that.

Now, maybe that doesn’t seem so bad to you. $10 an hour is a livable wage, barely. Until you realize this: normal people work 40 hours a week. Even doctors and lawyers (who make a hell of a lot more money than editors) will only clock 70-80. So how many projects do you think we can realistically fit into a month? The answer is one. From start to finish, with no other obligations, family or social life, etc. an editor can comfortably complete one project in a month’s time. But we don’t live in a perfect world, do we? And we rarely get the luxury of only working on that one project and nothing else. (Photo of project management via post-it being exhibit A.) We also don’t get paid everything up front. So, if we only schedule that one project in a month, because 150 hours equals 3.75 weeks of normal human work-time, that’s a grand income of $750. For the month. I’ll let you do that math. Is that a living wage in your book? Because that barely covers my car payment.

Are you completely depressed now? Because I am. But the point of this post was not to whine, or complain, or guilt-trip anyone. I simply wanted to show you exactly what life as an editor looks like. It’s not sitting around and reading all day. It’s arduous, mentally-taxing, long hours for very little pay and often even less appreciation. It’s not a life that will lead to riches, or fame, or maybe even a full-time income. Which begs the question, why would anyone do it?

The answer is easy — love. Editors truly love what they do. But the sad truth is that editors also have one of the highest burn-out rates of any career. The average life-span of an editor is only 2 years, and now you see why. In an industry that refuses to pay a living wage (freelance editors who charge less than $500 for a full edit and indie presses that offer $350 for two rounds of full edits, I’m looking at you), we’re required to go to super-human levels in order to stay afloat. We take on burdens that would make Atlas tired, and we do it all for you guys, the authors. Because we truly want to help you produce fantastic, beautiful pieces of art. We’d just kind of like not to starve while doing it.

So, there you have it. That’s what the editing life looks like in all it’s stress-filled, brutal glory. I hope it’s been enlightening and that you take away three key things:

1. If you’re looking to hire an editor, please consider what their rate actually means. As in every industry, you get what you pay for.

2. If you’re already working with an editor, try to remember that they may have a desk covered in post-its too, and that your project is not the only one on their plate.

3. If you are an editor, set your rates appropriately. When you charge less than $500, you harm not just yourself, but the rest of the industry. You deserve to eat. You deserve to have a roof over your head.

That is all. Thanks for reading! 🙂


10 thoughts on “The Editing Life Laid Bare: A Brutal Look at the Statistics

  1. I know you said not to comment on the content/mess. But seriously…WHAT MESS??? You look incredibly organized 🙂 Also, I am always humbled when I see the breakdown of the editing fees. Writers couldn’t be authors without editors. And editors couldn’t do what they do if they didn’t love their work 🙂

    Thanks for the post!

    • Ha! Not as organized as it might seem on a glance. You can’t see the pile of loose papers and other nonsense I’m choosing not to deal with that I pushed off the side before I took that pic. But I have also been accused of being Monica from “Friends” a time or two over the years, too . . . 😉

      As always, thanks for your support, for reading, and for taking the time to comment. I’m always happy to see your smiling face pop up in my alerts. ❤

  2. Love this article! I’ve often tried to picture you hard at work, and this gives me a great visual. Is it weird that the first thing I’m drawn to in your picture is the black wolf on the right? 🙂

    • Thank you! Is my editing cave about what you imagined? Haha.

      And no, I don’t think it’s weird at all. He always draws my gaze too. That’s an illustration of the Nightwolf, as in the blog’s namesake and one of my flag-ship characters. I drew it a long time ago, but that’s actually a vinyl sticker like you see on car windshields. Possibly one of my favorite parts of my desk. 🙂

  3. I agree with everything you had to say here.

    Authors who are established and really raking in the dough shouldn’t be skimping on editors who are so integral to the process.

    For a lowly no one like myself, $1500 is unfortunately something I can’t afford to drop on a speculative piece of fiction, where it *might* become the next big thing or it *might* just as easily end up with no one interested in reading it at all.

    That isn’t a knock on editors. You’ve laid out the case and convinced me that it’s money well spent. I hope one day I can build myself into someone who will gladly pay a trusted editor to bring a project home. I can’t at this time, but people who can should.

    • I can appreciate where you’re coming from as well. I think most editors understand that finances are equally hard no matter which side of the publishing fence you’re on. The editor/author relationship should be a symbiotic one, and as such, I know that many good editors (myself included) are more than willing to work with authors to accommodate cost. Many offer flexible payment plans, as well as giveaways like the ones I offer here periodically, and affordable options that can help reduce the cost while still allowing writers the opportunity to benefit from an editor’s expertise.

      That said, I also don’t believe that every writer needs to work with a freelance professional editor (which is in itself a little sacrilegious of me to say, as the party line is that EVERY writer needs a professional editor). If you’re self-publishing, then definitely, it’s mandatory and should be the thing you invest the most on, even above the cover art. But if you’re pursuing traditional publication paths, there’s no reason you would need to hire an editor. A good group of critique partners and beta readers can most definitely help you polish a manuscript to the level needed to impress a publisher or agent, and once you land a book deal, you’ll gain access to the professional editors at no charge to yourself. So there are options available.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, though. It allowed me to elaborate a little more on what I was trying to impart, which is that we’re all in this together. Writers and editors are all focused on the same thing, and if we find a way to coexist where everyone is appreciated and successful, it will only make things better for all. 🙂

  4. Great post! As someone considering a career in editing, this is wonderful to know. Thanks for the honesty and the good information!

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