Five Reasons Copyediting Takes More Time Than You Might Think


Five Reasons Copyediting Takes More Time Than You Might Think

People are often surprised by the time it takes to copyedit manuscripts, probably because they have a sense of how long it takes to read a book of similar length. But copyediting does take longer—much longer—and authors and readers benefit from the hours upon hours copy editors dedicate to their craft.

(This post refers largely to copyediting fiction, but the principles apply to nonfiction as well, though nonfiction generally takes even more time [often substantially more time] owing to such things as reference lists and technical content. Editors also develop processes that work best for them and their clients, so the following won’t reflect all processes of all editors.)


Understanding the time to copyedit something effectively (and all that that involves) helps authors know what they should be getting from an edit, and it helps them weigh what is a reasonable fee for the copy editor’s work.

What You Get

As we’ll see, copyediting involves a lot more than people think. (I actually had a friend ask what more I needed to do after running spellcheck!)

Authors often begin their search for an editor with the idea that they need only a “quick proof,” so all they’ll get from a copy edit needs to be learned (as well as the idea that they might also need a developmental or line edit).

What You Pay

If it takes an author twelve or thirteen hours to read through their manuscript, they might assume that the time to edit is somewhere in that neighborhood—and the price they’re willing to pay will understandably align with that.

Authors might have a very different idea of a fair fee if they understand that the work involves not twelve or thirteen hours but thirty or more hours.

Let’s say an author has a 300-page manuscript in standard format, and it takes that author twelve hours to do a read-through. This would have them reading at twenty-five pages an hour.

Ten pages an hour is a pretty good clip for copyediting fiction. I’m usually below that when you average my main pass and proofing pass, but at ten pages per hour that 300-page manuscript would require thirty hours of work. So if an author is paying $200 for the job, they might begin to wonder about the quality of the work.


The following five reasons for why it takes as long as it does to edit effectively should also give authors some reassurance about their editor’s commitment to their manuscript.

1. Time Outside the Read-Through

Editors do a number of tasks before the first pass, between passes, and at the end of the job, not to mention admin tasks such as communicating with the author, invoicing, and tracking the kind of data that helps editors constantly refine their systems and processes.

Initial Cleanup

Before that first read-through, an editor will rename a file according to their naming conventions and format the file so that it’s usable for editing.

The latter usually means ensuring the manuscript is Times New Roman, twelve-point font, double spaced, with automatic indents and styled headings. Editor’s Toolkit Plus is a handy tool for snapping up spaces around returns, double spaces, and tabs and for formatting ellipses and smart quotes.

The editor may run an initial pass of PerfectIt (a consistency checker), search for particular instances in the document, and run macros such as ProperNounAlyse (this pulls all the proper nouns from a document so an editor gets a heads-up on spelling discrepancies for people and place names).

After the First Pass

Here the author often runs spellcheck and PerfectIt, then reviews their notes and comments for continuity or sentence-level concerns to keep track of during the final pass.

After the Proofing Pass

Editors usually have a number of common cleanup searches, most of which can be built into PerfectIt. The editor will check their notes for any outstanding concerns, review their comments for tone and content (Do they address the issue, explain why it’s an issue, and suggest an alternative?), and clean up their style sheet (see more on style sheets below).

Before returning the edited manuscript, the editor will draft an editorial overview (usually an email). I’ve also begun using Loom videos so I can show authors things like the navigation pane and aspects of using tracked changes (this also provides a nice, personal way for me to thank authors for having me as their editor).

2. A Different Kind of Reading

To do their jobs effectively, editors must read in a way that is slow and measured. Editors are always asking questions of the text and of the way it relates to the surrounding text in grammar and syntax.

Readers often speed-read or even mentally switch off for passages, but editors must maintain strict concentration at all times, and they must manage their concentration and be aware of their limits per day and per hour, and rest accordingly.

Editors also must be aware not just of sentence-level concerns like spelling but of continuity issues (such as discrepancies with the timeline and character details such as eye color) and of things like echoes or words and pet phrases throughout the manuscript.

Time is also added for inserting edits, which are tracked, and for adding comments to explain edits or to query authors on matters of style or continuity. Editors will often use tools like TextExpander to more quickly insert frequently made comments, but editors inevitably also need extra time to carefully phrase other comments so that they are both kind and useful to the author.

3. Constant Lookups

MerriamFetch is one of my favorite macros, with good reason. (A macro is a program you can run within Word, and this macro automatically pulls up Merriam-Webster’s definition page for a selected word. Believe me, it saves a ton of time.)

Spelling is more complicated than running Word’s spellcheck. Spellcheck helps, and editors should run it, but editors are usually editing to a dictionary outside of Word (I’m usually editing to Merriam-Webster).

Editors also have to decide their approach when word variants are listed in the dictionary. Usually it falls to the first-listed variant, but editors will also take into account author preference and add exceptions to the style sheet to account for this.

Editors are also constantly breaking from reading the manuscript to look up issues in their style guide (for me that’s usually the Chicago Manual of Style). These may relate to punctuation or treatment of terms or use of numerals or capitalization or similar issues.

Editors are also frequently turning to other resources, such as Garner’s Modern English Usage or the Conscious Style Guide or Crystal Shelley’s Conscious Language Toolkit.

Fiction often requires fact-checking, so there are web lookups for things like the time it takes to travel between locations and even medical details. A copy editor’s lookup history can be, um, interesting.

So many lookups!

4. The Style Sheet

While editing, the copy editor builds out a style sheet detailing general guidelines for editing and exceptions to these guidelines. An author may, for instance, prefer commas before sentence-ending toos and eithers.

The style sheet also includes a word list of proper nouns and manuscript-specific spellings. Other items on the style sheet include character and setting details (so a character doesn’t have blond hair on page 10 and brown hair on page 110, unless a dye is involved, and so a character doesn’t go to the sixteenth floor of a ten-story building).

The style sheet also includes a timeline by chapter that is a great help in addressing continuity concerns so, for example, five days don’t pass between Thursday and Saturday.

5. Multiple Passes

Editors have different processes. Some copy editors might run through only one pass. Others might run through more than two, but I usually do an intensive major pass and then a second proofreading pass using ReadAloud (hearing the manuscript read aloud is magic for finding such things as missing words, transposed words, and wrong words).

Multiple passes, of course, add time to the job. In addition, editors may need to run streamlined passes for particular items, such as a specific continuity concern.


Authors spend countless hours, even years, bringing their story into the world. Everyone, perhaps most importantly the eventual reader, benefits when authors and editors understand each other’s processes and the associated time each involves.

Writing takes time. Editing takes time. When a book is in a reader’s hands and a story is firing that reader’s imagination, the reader might not have a true concept of all the time that went into the book’s creation, but they will undoubtedly feel it in every chapter, scene, and sentence.


  • You wrote “So if an author is paying $200 for the job, they might begin to wonder about the quality of the work.”

    In my experience, the author paying $200 for the job will wonder where they can get it done cheaper!

    Editing is an underappreciated and underpaid service. I hope authors read this excellent breakdown of editing tasks and gain an understanding of how we edit and why we’re worth our weight in gold.

      • James Gallagher-
      • June 20, 2023 at 12:08 pm-
      • Reply

      Hear! Hear! And Your Publishing BFF is a great business name!

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