How long will it take? And what will it cost?

February 4, 2010

One of the hardest things for prospective clients to understand is the amount of time it takes to do documentation work. I’m not talking about the writing, but the other stuff — the editing, the reformatting, the pulling together of the document.

For example, some months ago someone on the STC’s Consultants and Independent Contractors discussion list asked the following:

I have been asked to sort through a bunch of documents (articles, presentations, etc.), weed out duplicate content and bad content, and perhaps do some writing to fill in gaps. I am to create a working manuscript.  The client expects the book to run about 125 pages or so, with 150 words per page, and is asking what I’d charge.

Ah! The ‘How long is a piece of string?’ question. The client assumes that the final result will be 125 pages with 150 words per page (that seems small; most Word documents I’ve worked on recently have been between 500 and 600 words per page). But what’s NOT provided is information about the ‘bunch of documents’ that already exist. Here are some of the things I’d need to find out before I would consider quoting on this work (I came up with this list in about 5 minutes — given more time, no doubt I’d add more questions): P1040816
  • Are the existing documents a mess (formatting as well as writing style)? Were all documents written by the same person using the same template, or — more likely — by multiple people using multiple (or no) templates? Ask for samples! Do not take the prospective client’s word for it — most will say the documents ‘just need a little work’. Beware the word ‘just’!
  • Do I have to create a 125 page (18,000 word) document from a total of, say, 600 pages and 300,000 words? If so, some serious editing and rewriting is required.
  • Do all the existing documents have to fit into the one document in a specific order? If so, what is the sequence? Some serious structural decisions may need to be made.
  • Is there a template already set up for the new document? Or do I have to create it?
  • Are there logos and other elements (like copyright and legal statements) I need to include in the document? What’s the house style on their placement?
  • What tools/tool knowledge will be needed to create the deliverable? (Word, Framemaker, Acrobat, HTML, other software?)
  • Does the client need to update and maintain the document in the future? If so, do they have the tools and knowledge to do this? (The answer to this question may dictate how many ‘smarts’ like autofill macros you can use in the document.)
  • Can the client clearly state who the audience for this document is, and what prerequisite knowledge they assume the audience has?

Summarized below is one response to the original question, which shows a slightly different approach to the issue:

Here is how I would scope that job:

I would take all of the articles and presentations and reports and pour them into the 125-page Word document. I would format them in some reasonable way to make them consistent and workable. (8 hours) [That is, importing mixed files and formatting at a rate of 15 pages an hour.]

The next day I would print a hard copy and read through all 125 pages, making detailed notes of duplicate information, what needs to be written or rewritten, and what needs to be reorganized to make the book logical to follow. (8 hours) [That requires mindful reading and commentary development at a rate of 15 pages an hour, or four minutes a page. That is pretty fast.]

I would make copies of the document with my notes and request a meeting with client to review my plan of action. (2 to 4 hour meeting)

I would implement the changes, and depending upon how much has to be written or edited, that could take 4 hours to 2 days. (4 to 16 hours)

I would finalize the document’s format to make it consistent and presentable. (4 hours)

Once done, I’d send it out for the client’s review.

Enter client review comments. (4 hours)

Project management (2 hours)

Total = 32 to 46 hours depending upon how much writing needs to be completed.

Multiply the hours by your hourly rate.

So, what the client thought might be a day’s work can easily take a week or more. It’s way too easy for clients to underestimate the time it takes to do what they assume to be simple tasks.

Hopefully some of the strategies posed here may help you if you’re ask to take on a similar task.

See also:

[Link last checked June 2015; thanks to Gwynne M for asking the question, and to Tom G for offering the scoping response]


  1. You have written an excellent article on this topic and I can’t wait to make other technical communicators aware of it via Twitter and LinkedIn.

  2. This is great. Thank you!

  3. […] newsletter/blog of CyberText Consulting – technical communication specialists « How long will it take? And what will it cost? How long will the editing take? February 5, 2010 A colleague asked how long it would take […]

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  5. […] Rhonda Bracey: How Long Will It Take? How Much Will It Cost? https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2010/02/04/how-long-will-it-take/ […]

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