Thursday, October 6, 2011


"This process should take no longer than 30 minutes to an hour." So said one of the sets of instructions I read on preparing one's kitchen for termite fumigation.

The reality was far different. The tall, skinny nyloform bags had be double-bagged, and because they were floppy, I had to wrestle a paper bag or box into each to support the contents. After the bags were half full, the inside bag had to be sealed in a special way, then the outside bag. It took nineteen double-bagged to hold our nonrefrigerated kitchen items that needed protection from the gas. It was a full day's worth of work. Clearly, the person writing the instructions had never packed for a termite tenting.

We have moved many times, so we know packing. When we learned our house had to be tented and the scheduler wanted to sign us up for the following week, we knew to say "no." There were several dozens bushes and trees to be trimmed or cut down; valuables to be packed and taken elsewhere; hotels to be researched and reservations to be booked; suitcases for our time away to be packed; hundreds of items in the kitchen and bathrooms to be put into nyloform bags; get work done ahead of time; and the ground around the house to be soaked with water for several hours. We scheduled it four weeks out, and we could have used a little more time.

Similarly, I've had clients who were clueless how long their projects would take, usually because they did not understand the steps involved. "Big-picture people" have a hard time breaking down projects into the component actions. They assume drone work takes little time and base their guess of the total time on the amount of creative work needed, when in fact chasing down contact information, lining up interviews, collecting data and doing research, checking facts and spellings, finding photos and getting rights to use them, creating spreadsheets, and all the other foundation work often takes longer than writing the article or book.

As writers and editors, we need to develop the skill to estimate the time a project will take. Otherwise, we will sign on to projects we don't have time to do or get paid a pittance for a huge project.

Here are some tips I've learned.

Stick with the same clients. There are many good reasons to have low turnover in your client list, but one of the most important is that you and your client learn what's involved in a typical project and how long it takes. You can then set a per-project or per-hour rate that both of you are happy with.

Do part of the project before bidding to find out what's involved, and keep track of how long the different tasks take. You will then be able to guess how long the full project will take and bid accordingly. There's the risk that the client won't hire you if you bid too high, but that's better than being the winning low bidder stuck with a nightmare project.

Ask for an hourly rate, not a project rate. Doing so gives the client most of the risk, so they may object. But with a new client or a client who seems particularly big-picture-oriented, an hourly rate may be the only way to get a fair deal.

Assume that you will spend 25% (for a regular client) to 100% (for a new or ditzy client) more time on a writing or editing project that you estimate. Set your project fee and plan your calendar accordingly.

Writing projects are usually paid by the project, not the hours worked. Some of the information you need to know before making a bid or deciding to accept the offered fee are:
  • Word count
  • Reading level (lower reading levels take longer to write)
  • Audience
  • Nature of project
  • Date due
  • Number of people who will review your work and ask for changes
  • Whether your deadlines will be extended if the client is late getting info or feedback to you
  • What background material you will be given and what do you need to find on your own
  • A guess about the likelihood that the editor will keep their word
Editing projects are usually billed by the hour. Clients, not surprisingly, often want a guess ahead of time of how many hours you'll need if the project is large or unusual. Sometimes they need to get approval from a higher-up or look at their budget to see whether the project can be done or must be scaled back. Most of the information above for writers is useful to know before giving your editing client a guesstimate. Here are some other things to find out.
  • Whether the authors are native English speakers
  • Whether the authors were given a common style guide 
  • Whether the authors followed that style guide
  • Whether you may query the authors directly when passages are obtuse or calculations seem wrong, or whether you have to go through the editor
  • Whether you have to check and correct the references
  • Whether you will receive complete materials or whether you'll have to write abstracts or do research to complete the chapters or articles yourself
  • Whether your client wants a light edit that merely corrects spelling, grammar, and house style errors or a heavy edit that also includes correcting factual errors and rewriting badly written sentences so the authors don't look like idiots
What tips for estimating time for writing or editing projects have I missed? Do you have any horror stories about times you estimated the time needed for a project poorly?

I'll be blogging again at Novel Spaces on October 21. See you then!

—Shauna Roberts


Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Interesting post, Shauna! And some great tips. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Good stuff from an insider. I've done a 'little' of this sort of thing and you're absolutely right, the work is mostly in making all the contacts and running down all the information, not in the actual writing time. the Hourly wage idea makes great sense.

KeVin K. said...

Vital insights into territory I'm exploring as my venture is growing and taking shape. Thanks, Shauna.

Shauna Roberts said...

KARIN, CHARLES, and KEvIN, thanks for commenting. I'm glad you found some useful ideas in my post. When I was a science and medical writer, I often did large, complex projects, and I got burned a time or two at first by trusting the client's estimate of the time needed.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Great post,Shauna. Thanks for the tips.

Liane Spicer said...

Great tips! If I do decide to do this (been ruminating on it for awhile) this will be very useful to me.