Why Does Editing Take So Long?

“Hi, I’m looking for an editor. I have all of my notes and reference books, I just need help putting it together.”

Hmm, I thought. Sounds like this guy needs more than copyediting. Maybe I can refer him to a book coach. . . .

And then,

“I need it Sunday.”

It was Friday afternoon. I’m not sure what this person thought was going to happen, but certainly no one could seriously expect an editor, or really any publishing professional, to create something out of nothing and do so in 48 hours.

This is an extreme example of the sometimes unrealistic expectations writers have of how quickly an editor can work. Still, even reasonable people want to know why copyediting takes three to four weeks, why development takes eight to twelve weeks or longer depending on how complex of a development it is. It’s a fair question. Here are my thoughts.

Editors read every word. 

As I have mentioned before in this blog, editors do not skim your manuscript. They read every word to make sure it is spelled correctly, assess every comma and semicolon to make sure it is used correctly, and evaluate every sentence and paragraph to make sure it makes sense and is in the best place for it. They check grammar and ensure consistency throughout the book, and they ensure each thought flows naturally from the one before it. Such careful reading means taking your time.

Editors read every word multiple times.

To help make sure as many errors as possible have been caught, copyeditors read a manuscript twice. Developmental editors may read the manuscript three or four times. Given that, different editors may average between four and ten pages an hour. If the development is extensive — you haven’t settled on a focus for the book, for example — the pace could drop to two or three pages per hour.

Editors research the best solution to a problem.

Four to ten pages an hour? Even when reading each word carefully, that seems awfully slow to the average reader.

The holdup is that editors don’t simply know all of the rules of grammar, spelling, and usage. They know a lot of them, but the rest they look up. Dictionaries, style guides, dedicated websites for areas of expertise — searching through these resources takes time. Experienced editors know the best places to look for answers, but they still have to look.

Related to this, editors keep a style sheet of all the terms and problem areas they research. That includes any proper names, unusual spellings, special treatment of key terms, and more that may be found in your book. Keeping the list in itself takes time. Ensuring its accuracy adds more time. However, these lists are essential in achieving consistency and correctness throughout a manuscript. They also are extremely helpful for anyone working on the project after editing, such as the designer and proofreader.

Editors have other projects.

Perhaps hardest for writers to understand is that they probably are not their editor’s only client. I like to make my authors feel as if they are my only client, but when it comes to how fast I can finish a project, the two or three other manuscripts on my desk have to come into consideration. I do not work on one project for eight hours a day. If I did, my eyes would glaze over and I would begin to make mistakes. Instead, I work on each project for a few hours every day. This helps me to stay engaged, critical for good editing.

I, as many editors do, try very hard to give my clients an accurate estimate of the amount of time a project will take. As I am a businessperson, it is in my best interest to finish a project as quickly as I can while still providing the highest quality I can. That is how I earn my clients’ trust and repeat business. That means, most likely, your editor is not dragging her feet in editing your manuscript. (It’s possible, but not likely.) More likely, she is working methodically to help you create the best possible book.

What You Can Do About It

It’s not always nice to have to wait for your editor to get through your manuscript. You might be itching to get past copyediting and on to design and layout. You may have promised someone you’d have the edited manuscript ready by a certain date. To get a good edit, however, you have to allow enough time. Take these steps to help smooth this process:

  • Build into your schedule an appropriate amount of time for each stage of editing (development, 2-6 months; copyediting, 3-5 weeks; proofreading, 2-4 weeks).
  • Contact your editor early to get on her schedule. Alert your editor asap if you will miss the date you agreed to submit the manuscript.
  • Take steps to turn over a manuscript that is as free of errors as you are able to get it.

I will say again that the best thing an author can do is find the right editor for you, one who can meet your budget, your schedule, and your expectations for quality. If you have doubts that your editor is using her time wisely, ask for an update.  If you determine your editor really isn’t performing to your standards, you may opt to pay for the work thus far and find someone else. Just keep in mind that a lot goes into good editing and often a little patience now pays off in the long run.

Like this blog? Look for Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro, coming Fall 2014.

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15 thoughts on “Why Does Editing Take So Long?”

  1. That isn’t someone who needs (or even wants) an editor; that’s someone who needs a co-author. But it’s really someone who wants someone else to do the work of writing the document/paper/thesis/whatever for him/her. Clueless in the extreme. Probably also only wants to pay a very few bucks for the work, too.

  2. This is a great summation of how editors work and what should be expected of them. As a copy editor, I wish I could send this to all my “I need this by Sunday” clients. Thanks for the post!

  3. Sharing this on my Facebook page.

    Oh, and I hope you don’t mind, Katherine, but I caught a small typo: second paragraph under the header, “Editors have other projects,” “possibly” (in parentheses) should be “possible.”

  4. I’m lucky enough to have a professional copy editor as my writing partner. We send chapters back and forth all the time. l get the best of the deal, but I try to be as helpful to her as I can.

  5. good article. I am sending it to my niece who is studying to be an editor. She is a senior in college and is trying to find her niche. It is hard to find a good editor.

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