All content work is not equal. Several factors influence how long it can take to edit a single document. Let’s review the seven levels of editing as detailed by Susan Wyche, and lay a foundation for how to calculate the time it takes to edit content.
This blog expounds upon the 7 Levels of Editing Presentation [PDF] constructed and performed by Alisha Truemper.
Knowing how long it will take to write or review a piece of content can feel like a nearly impossible task even for a seasoned veteran within the content practice. The numbers I use below are my own initial estimates, which have been reviewed and agreed upon with a few of my content practice colleagues with the caveat that these numbers are not solid or set in stone, but fluid and subject to fluctuate based on any number of contributing factors, such as:
- The number of pages or words in document
- The complexity of the content (basic language vs in-depth technical, medical or legal writing)
- The level of content editing requested
- Formatting (general page mark-up vs similarity to nearly finished product)
- Off-page work (research, comparisons, fact checking, etc)
- Familiarity with the content, topic, or industry.
As we walk through each of the seven levels of editing, I’ll suggest a basis for calculating hours for that work. For the sake of these estimations, let’s assume documents are two pages or shorter, single spaced, in a commonly used typeface like Times New Roman, Arial, Calibri, Verdana, Helvetica). Each of these fonts vary in spacing and character width, so we’ll assume the fatter typefaces, like Verdana, are formatted smaller at size 10 or 11. We can assume other slimmer typefaces are formatted to size 12, since that’s often the default in Microsoft products and drilled into our heads by most teachers.
Time can incrementally “tacked on” for each 1-2 pages added to a single document or 1-2 page documents added to the content professional’s workload.
Light Copyediting or Proofreading
This first level of editing requires minor grammar, punctuation and spelling changes. You won’t need very much time to for this level of editing, since the piece is in near final condition, and most-likely has already received higher levels of editing and proofing.
Give yourself 30 minutes to complete this task per single 1-2 page document, and add 30 minutes for each additional page that needs to be proofread.
Basic content editing typically asks that the content professional ensure the document adheres to the style guide, statements are correct, sentences are grammatical and punctuated properly, and that there are no typos or misspellings.
You will need a little more time to edit at this level of depth. I typically allow myself an hour for a 1-2 page document. So, always give youru editor at least one hour, and then depending on the your editor’s familiarity with the content or subject matter add in 40-60 minute increments for additional pages.
Once you start paying attention to stylistic issues like repetitive word usage and the flow from one sentence to another, you’ll need at least two hours to work on a single document. I’d recommend giving yourself four hours, since some changes in style can alter the meaning or interpretation of ideas that the original author put forth; so you’ll have to check in with them periodically for clarification. This level of editing includes the tasks and considerations of all the previous. So, tack on 2 hours for each additional 1-2 pages added to your task list; make it 4 hours for technical writing or other complicated industry content.
At this level the editor begins to think about the content holistically. So in addition to performing meeting the requirements of the previous editing levels, the editor will manipulate the content structure, which includes:
- information hierarchy,
- heading style and organization,
- clarity of ideas and concepts,
- management of a table of contents (if necessary).
When performing structural editing the content professional might suggest rewrites, but won’t rewrite content (that’s a more indepth level of editing). You’ll need to start with a basis of at least 4-6 hours; so I suggest setting aside 8 hours initially for this task. At this level off-page tasks should be taken into consideration. Tack on time for additional pages in 4 hour increments.
Substantive editing digs deep into the meat of content. Instead of looking at what’s already there, the editor has a hand in the foundational ingredients of what makes the content a complete capsule of information.
The editor manipulates context to meet the needs of its target audience, while steering the content towards fulfilling its purpose within scope and on time. The editor should keep the author’s intent in mind throughout the process. This means they will most likely place themselves in a similar mindset as and equip themselves with similar levels of knowledge on the topic as the author. Thus, the editor may request details and review the author’s source materials. They will ask for proof of facts, and may request examples, or illustrations to help clarify ideas for potential readers.
At this level the depth and length of the content itself will have significant impact on delivery time. Estimations become incredibly fluid here. A working discovery period is beneficial to calculating correctly for this level of content editing. For the purposes of this blog, I’ll suggest you allow at least 8 hours as a base, and tack on for additional pages and documents in 4-8 hour increments.
Unlike previous levels of content editing, revising doesn’t include the previous levels, because the editor may take the content in a completely new direction with a new vision, audience and/or purpose. Editors must reconsider the decisions made to finalize the original, so as not to contradict or neglect necessary inclusions or exclusions, but the editor will ultimately rework the core of the existing content.
Think of revising content like gutting an old house. You keep the foundation and the bones, but you will move walls to combine or separate rooms. Portions of the house will be repurposed to better suit modern needs. The look, feel, and flow through the house may change.
Time to delivery for revising content depends on heavily on complexity and length. Start with a basis of 8 or 16 hours. The number of hours tacked on per page or document can fluctuate between documents, if the editor is revising different types of documents with different needs. Use a working discovery period to estimate if you need to add on hours in increments of 2, 4 or 8 hours per page.
If revising is like gutting a house, then rewriting is equivalent to knocking the house down and rebuilding atop the foundation.
When rewriting the editor will change the voice, tone, and stylistic nature of the content. Although the editor will reference the original content and its sources, the document is completely new, because the original text becomes a basis for the new.
With rewriting allow for nearly the same amount of time you would for creating a fresh piece of content. For the purpose of discussion, I’ll suggest we start with a basis of 8-24 hours and tack on time in 4-8 hour increments. Double time allowances for technical writing.
You may note that there are some differences in the time calculations posted to the original presentation and this blog. These time estimates are a hypothesis, which requires validation through practice. Please share your knowledge and experience to help build a truer system for calculating time to delivery at every level of content editing.