How to Hire & Work With an Academic Copyeditor

[I am not myself available for copyediting or editing workshops; see below if you are looking for copyeditors.]

Copyediting is the task of correcting a manuscript from an author by catching grammar and spelling errors, standardizing style and documentation, and improving clarity and flow, all while not introducing errors or changing the author’s meaning. Unlike almost anything else in modern life, no machine can perform this complicated combination of tasks. The software program has not been invented that can make the hundreds of decisions an editor makes every minute (although spell check has been a godsend). 

Yet, it is an unfortunate truth that many authors have misconceptions about how much copyediting costs and how long it takes. This section is an explanation of what authors should expect when hiring a copyeditor independently.

First, few academic copyeditors are going to charge an individual less than $35 an hour. Good editors with lots of experience will charge at least $50 an hour. and generally will charge $75 to $85 an hour. 

Second, to do a thorough job of copyediting an academic manuscript, copyeditors edit from 2 to 5 pages an hour. A page is defined as 250 words, which is what a one-inch-margin, double-spaced, twelve-point-font page usually comes out to. Manuscripts with many problems will slow a copyeditor down to a page an hour, or even half a page; clean manuscripts may go as fast as 8 pages an hour. Copyeditors usually move through a book more quickly than an article because they get used to what kinds of mistakes you make. Also, just setting up to edit a manuscript takes two or three hours, which gets amortized over the course of a whole book but not an article. In general, the average rate at which copyeditors edit is 4 pages (or 1,000 words) per hour.

So, the bottom line here is that getting your 30-page article copyedited may cost you as much as $2,000. In general, you should expect to pay at least $500. A full-length book of 500 pages that needs a lot of editing could cost as much as $17,500 (if an editor is charging $35 an hour and spending an hour per page to edit it). But most authors will likely end up spending between $4,000 and $5,000.

Many authors are shocked to learn how much copyediting costs. While they may understand that good academic copyeditors are highly educated (often with doctorates), have developed wide ranges of knowledge, and deserve a decent wage for their professional skills, authors may still balk at paying $500 for an article or $5,000 for a book.

Let me point out one thing, however. It’s true that hundreds of dollars is no small thing for starving students or untenured faculty, even for those who are regularly buying $5 lattes (you know who you are!). It is a small thing, however, if you think of it as an investment. A well-edited article will most likely do better in the submission process at a first-rate journal with a high rejection rate. Since publication in good journals leads to jobs, tenure, and promotions, good copyediting can lead directly to you making more money a year. Sometimes it is the very people who think little of paying $500 for a suit to wear to three job interviews who think that $500 for copyediting is too much to invest in their long-term future.

So, how do you know if you would benefit from copyediting? My belief is that anyone can benefit. We all have blind spots and can learn much from corrections to our consistent errors. If you have never had a professional copyedit and are planning to send a precious article out for review, think about hiring a copyeditor just for the learning experience. If you are not a native speaker of English, or you have been told by instructors or colleagues that your work could benefit from copyediting, hire a copyeditor before sending work to a publisher. If your article suffers from poor grammar and awkward constructions, such errors may prevent your good ideas from receiving a fair review.

If you have decided that you would like to make this investment, no doubt you want to get the best value for your money. To do so, I recommend that you do the following. First, review the manuscript you would like copyedited. Make sure that it is clean. If your footnotes have never been spell-checked, spell-check them. If your references are not standardized, fix them. You do not want to pay someone else to fix things you could easily have fixed yourself. Second, once you have fixed what you can, identify exactly how many pages are in your manuscript (don’t guess, divide the total electronic word count by 250 words). Divide this figure by 4 (pages an hour) to arrive at the likely total cost of copyediting. That way you won’t be surprised. Third, ask around to find out if anyone you know has worked with a good copyeditor. Or go directly to the Editorial Freelancers Association website. There, pick an academic copyeditor who is familiar with your field and its conventions. (I have never worked as a copyeditor with EFA; they don’t pay me anything or give me anything to recommend them; I recommend them because they are organized and managed by editors for the benefit of editors.) I also recommend Mafoko Manuscript Services, run by my friend Dr. Mary S. Lederer, an excellent editor, and her colleague Dr. Leloba S. Molema. They are based in Botswana, so their rates are about half US rates. 

Once you have identified someone you want to work with, give the copyeditor clear instructions about what kind of edit you want. There are four kinds of editing: technical editing, style editing, correlation editing, and substantive editing. Each one of these is described below. Substantive editing is the most time-consuming and also the most valuable. If you struggle with English grammar, I recommend asking a copyeditor for a technical edit and a substantive edit. If you are pretty confident about your grammar and spelling, you can ask for only a substantive edit. You can also ask for a style edit if your manuscript simply must be submitted in the publisher’s format, but most people can put a document into a particular style if they really study the submission guidelines, so this is a place to save yourself money in advance.

Finally, if you are having the copyeditor edit a book-length manuscript, have him or her edit one chapter and send it to you so you can review the changes before going farther. If the copyeditor found standard errors, you may even be able to correct these before sending the rest of the manuscript to him or her.

If you need to find a freelance copyeditor, please go to Editorial Freelancers Association

Some Copyediting Terms

Copyediting is correcting a manuscript from the author. Proofreading is correcting a print-ready document from the publisher. Frequently, people without training use the word proofreading to refer to a light edit (correcting only basic errors) and copyediting to refer to a heavy edit (improving a manuscript’s clarity and logic). Although these are not the strict meaning of the terms, it is true that proofreading is usually less intensive and takes less skill than copyediting. For instance, many beginners start as proofreaders and only later move on to copyediting.

There are four kinds of copyediting: technical editing, style editing, correlation editing, and substantive editing. Each of these is described below.

Technical editing involves such things as correcting misspellings, problems with subject-verb agreement, incorrect verb tense, unnecessary or missing commas, unmarked em-dashes and en-dashes, dangling or misplaced modifiers, problems with pronoun-antecedent agreement, misused words (e.g., effect for affect), split or fused sentences, sentence fragments, faulty attempts at parallel construction, figures that don’t total in charts and tables, incorrect dates, and omitted or repeated words.

Style editing involves standardizing a text according to a particular style. There are four main manuals of style: The Chicago Manual of Style (for most academic texts), the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (mostly for the social sciences), the Modern Language Association Style Manual (mostly for literary criticism), and the Associated Press Stylebook (for newspapers). These manuals are used for guidance in matters where there is no right or wrong, yet material must appear consistently. This includes standardizing words in heads, titles in bibliographies, use of single or double quote marks, serial commas, numbers, acronyms, compound words, extracts, italics, note numbers, documentation style, references style, and illustrations.

Correlation editing involves checking related parts of the manuscript against each other. This is an extremely important step in academic copyediting and a frequently overlooked one. Since novels or newspapers do not have many related parts, copyeditors who work in these fields frequently do not learn this copyediting task. Copyeditors of academic articles or books, which have many related parts, must do crosschecks. Correlation editing includes checking cross-references to pages, tables or charts, maps, captions, endnotes, subheads, as well as checking all citations in the text with those in the references, and all titles and authors with those in the table of contents.

Substantive editing (sometimes called content editing) involves improving logic and clarity and addressing larger problems of structure and organization. This includes replacing passive voice with active voice, varying unintentionally repeated verbs, adding dashes or parentheses to clarify subordinate material, reducing strings of adjectives or doublings, replacing indefinite pronouns with clear noun subjects, reducing the use of an author’s pet word or phrase, changing words with racist and sexist connotations, defining special terms on first appearance, cutting wordy sentences, making parallel ideas appear in parallel forms, straightening out logic and connections, noting awkward phrasing that could be improved, adding transitions to improve the flow of argument, deleting irrelevant material or putting it in the footnotes, moving incorrectly placed paragraphs, deleting repeated paragraphs, providing subheads, cutting excessively long footnotes, lengthening or shortening titles for clarity, suggesting areas for additional citation or research, suggesting additional illustrations, as well as noting the absence of a real introduction or conclusion, where a title does not match content, where the argument is tangled or absent, where the argument could be made stronger with additional proofs, and where citations appear without sources.

Layout preparation editing involves marking or coding the manuscript for the layout artist, so that it is clear which parts of the text are heads, tables, footnote references, and so on, so that they can be prepared for design. This includes marking or coding heads; subheads; references in the text to tables, charts, figures, maps, appendixes, and footnotes; dashes, both en and em; ellipses; and specifying the placement of tables and illustrations.

Permissions involves asking for permission to reprint tables, charts, graphs, and illustrations that have previously appeared in print. If the manuscript contains lengthy quotations from a published work that is still under copyright, the copyeditor is expected to remind the author to obtain permission to reprint the quotations. Special rules pertain to the reproduction of unpublished materials (e.g., diaries, letters).

Finding Freelance Copyeditors

If you need a freelancer, please see the Editorial Freelancer Association website. The EFA online directory is searchable by skill, subject specialty, and geographic location (U.S.) or by name. It offers a brief summary of members’ freelance services and direct contact information. The information is kept up-to-date by members themselves. It is free of charge. You can also check out Mafoko Manuscript Services. I no longer provide information about copyeditors to those who email me; instead, please see these other websites.