A beginner’s guide to charging for editing services

It’s the bane of every self-employed person’s life – how to charge for the services you give customers. A beginner’s guide for editors starting out on their journey….

I belong to two local associations, one for freelancers in general and one for editors. Both have email groups, which ebb and flow with the seasons.

But one thing is certain: every so often, someone will ask for advice about how to charge for work. The question goes something like this, with several possible variations: the client wants (insert work here); how do I quote for that; what do I quote for that; how do I know if I am charging too much or too little.

The question of charging people for the editing work I do took me a long time to understand – but seven years on, I have some tips to share that might be helpful to beginners in the field.

Step one to understanding how much to charge: figure out your own needs

It’s always easier to externalise a problem than to deal with your own needs. So, you might be inclined to worry about what you think a client wants, or can pay, or what they might think about your quote.

But it is more important to start with yourself.

Because, if you are going to make a success of your business, you need to know one thing: the amount of money you need to pay the bills and (more importantly) to honour the time you are going to spend at your desk.

To figure out your absolute bottom line, you need to do some sums. (Note: in the examples below I am using figures that bear no relation to the cost of living, or might have no bearing on your own circumstances. They’re nice round numbers because that means it might be easier to follow the path I am taking.)

The basic formula (which I have originally from freelance rockstar Tiffany Markman):

  1. Start with the amount of money you need to earn a month.
  2. Add 25% to that monthly figure because you are going to need to put that aside to pay your tax.
  3. Multiply that by 12.
  4. Take that figure and divide it by 10 – because that’s the number of months in a year you can reasonably expect to be paid; you’ll need a holiday, there might be times in the year when clients go quiet.
  5. Then take that monthly figure and divide it by the amount of days you are likely to work in a month.
  6. Then take that number and divide it by the number of hours that you are likely to work in a day.
  7. The figure you come up with is the hourly rate you need!

 An example.

You need to earn R10,000 a month.

With a 25% provision to pay your provisional tax, that’s R12,500.

Over a year, you need to earn R150,000.

Divide by 10 – you need to earn R15,000 a month in your “good” months.

Divide that by 20 days a month = that’s R750 a day.

Divide that by eight hours a day.

Your desired hourly rate is R93,75c an hour.

Put it on a sticky note, write it on your forehead: this is now a north star metric for your business. All work that comes in needs to be assessed to see if it will bring in that amount of money.

(Note: in the beginning, you might not have enough work on hand to fill eight hours a day; you might need to adjust your hourly figure upwards to cater for that. )

Step two: Figure out your own working processes

Even though you now know your own worth, it’s worth taking a variety of jobs when you are starting out.

Be meticulous about time-keeping: for each job record to the minute all work done, phone calls and emails. I use a time-tracker but an notebook and pen will do just fine.

Also for every job you do, write down the number of words and the level of difficulty.

Then, do more maths.

After each job, work out how long it took you to do the job.

For example – it was 1000 words, medium difficulty and it took you an hour.

Over time, you will arrive an a good understanding of how many words you can do in an hour, based on the nature of the text.

Step three: convert your knowledge of your own work rate into a rate per word.

If your base rate is R250 an hour (slightly more realistic than the R93,75 we arrived at above), and you can do 1000 words in an hour, then you need to charge R250 per 1000 words, or 25c per word.

To make that sum a little clearer, you need to divide the amount of money by 1000. If your base rate is R93,75c per hour and you can do 1000 words in an hour, then you need to earn about 9c per word.

Step four: how to quote, based on your per word rate

Your per word rate is important because a lot of clients seem to like it that way. Very few are willing to pay an hourly rate for editing/proofreading.

What to do:

Ask to see the text and do a sample edit of two or three pages.

Time yourself.

Then use that figure to work out how long the whole job would take (adding a bit for unforeseen issues) and then do some sums to make that into a rate per 1000 words. Here’s a sample calculation:

Text to be edited is 40 000 words

Sample edit indicates I could do 2,500 words per hour.

Divide 40,000 by 2,500. That means 16 hours + 2 (for things you can’t plan for).

So if you want to earn R250 per hour, that means the total job is R4500 (18 hours X R250).

Now divide 4500 by 40 (the total number of words, divided by R1,000) and you get R112.50. Tell the client the rate is R112.50 per 1000 words, and that the final invoice will be R4,500

And then you make sure you bring it in in 18 hours or less!

Step five: a word on speed

This is simple: figure out how to edit as fast and efficiently as you can – because the faster you are, the more “profit” there will be.

Step six: Factors that can complicate things

A deal with a client will depend on many factors, starting with your reputation, your experience and your marketing efforts:

  • a client’s willingness to understand that they are paying for a credence good (one where the value is not immediately obvious)
  • how well they know you (if they trust you, you can charge more);
  • how well you know them (if they are a pain in the butt, quote more);
  • how much other work you have on hand;
  • is there referencing to check:
  • does the text have lots of pictures … and so on.

Step seven: Anticipate that you will get it wrong

I have almost always found that my quoting gets it wrong – the work always takes longer than I estimate. I simply add to my knowledge base, and adapt the next quote I do.

A bonus tip for proofreaders

The single biggest time sink for proofreading is academic references. Either make it crystal clear you are not going to do the references (nay – you are not even going to look at them). Or quote separately.

Final word

It’s important to remember that your base rate is really important – but also that it is flexible. You might make less on one job, and more on another. And as you start out, you might not make that base rate for several years. But having it in your mind as your goal means that all the work you do is building towards your eventual profitability. And that must always be a good thing.

Read more:

How to be a good editor – it’s all in the routine

Tips for editors: Academic referencing 101

A strategy for working with house style guides

What do proofreaders and editors do, exactly?

Main picture: micheile henderson, Unsplash

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