How long to edit a 50-page software manual

June 22, 2011

The question

Here’s the issue as posed by a member of an email discussion list I’m on:

I’m currently conducting a study to determine the average time spent by a Technical Writer/Editor to proofread a technical document. Assume that the document is a 50-page typical technical manual of a PC software. I would appreciate if you could share your estimates for the task.

My answer

It depends… And it depends on a lot of things. The length of the document (50 pages) is only one very tiny factor. Here are some ‘it depends’ questions, in no particular order.

  • What do you mean by ‘proofread’? Just a quick look through for typos, punctuation errors, misspellings, etc.? or a more thorough copyedit (including such items as I list here: https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/copyediting-from-a-copyeditors-perspective/) Do you actually mean a technical edit, where the editor is also verifying the validity of the information against the application? Or a substantive edit where the editor can move sections around for better understanding, more logical flow etc?
  • How big are the document’s pages? An A5 document’s 50 pages is not the same as 50 pages of A4 or A3, for example. So giving us a ballpark figure of a 50-page document is not very useful without knowing the page size.
  • How much text is on each page, versus screen shots, tables, figures etc.? And do all these have to be checked? (For example, I check text on figures/screen shots as well as in tables.)
  • How much of the document is made up of front matter and end matter, and do these elements need to be checked? (e.g. TOC, glossary etc.)
  • Is it assumed that the editor knows anything about the domain/subject matter? Someone without any knowledge of the area is likely to take much longer to edit the document. I would find it very difficult to edit documentation for complex financial software used by banks, whereas editing 3D geological modeling software would be fairly easy for me.
  • Does any software have to be installed by the editor before they can edit the document? If so, are there other things that need to be installed for the software to run (special databases, virtual machines, Java apps, etc.)? Will this installation and configuration time been taken into account in the estimate?
  • How many review cycles are included in the edit? Just because an editor recommends something, doesn’t mean that the author will accept that recommendation and discussions, meetings etc. may need to be factored in.
  • How will the editing be done? Hard copy mark up? Acrobat mark up? Word’s Track Changes? something else?
  • What format is the documentation in, and is that format able to be edited directly? e.g. a CHM is hard to edit directly, whereas a Word document is easy.
  • What’s the state of the writing? Does the author have good command of the language in which they are writing? Is the author experienced in technical writing? As I state in my blog post that I linked to above, a 350-page document from a good author may take as long for me to edit as a 40-page document from an author whose writing needs a lot of editing.
  • How much mechanical stuff does the editor need to fix? Things such as headers, footers, styles, apply a template, add document control tables etc.
  • As far as time goes, are you expecting the editor to do the editing in one session, or spaced out in between their other jobs? Editing is tiring on the eyes, brains, shoulders and neck, and doing it solidly for eight hours at a time is ergonomically unsound.

I’m sure there are many more ‘it depends’ factors, but these are a good starting point in trying to scope out an estimate. There’s no way I could give an estimate based on the original question, but if I found out the answers to the questions above, I’d be in a better position to do so.

Related blog posts:

[Links last checked June 2011; photo from: http://morguefile.com/archive/display/606352]


  1. 3 days :)

  2. Aim to correct 50 percent of the mistakes per week. You will probably need 3 people to do this. After 2 weeks you will have fixed 75% of the mistakes. After 4 weeks you will have fixed 93% and after 7 weeks (21 man weeks)you will have fixed 99.2% of the mistakes.

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