Proofreading & Editing clients: Why do they always lie about their wordcounts?

Two of the services we offer are proofreading and copyediting. To be perfectly honest, they’re my least favourite tasks, so they’re not services I promote very hard. Nevertheless, every now and then someone will contact me looking for a quote – and almost without exception, they will lie about the amount of text they need to have proofread/edited.

It happened again this morning. I answered the phone to find a woman on the other end who had two articles she wanted to have edited. She tried very hard to get me to give her a quote for this over the phone, making me explain over and over again that I’d really need to see the documents in question before I could give her an estimate.

The reason for this, of course, is simple. I charge by the hour, and while some copyediting jobs are straightforward, with only a minimal amount of changes required, some clients send me large swathes of text that are barely comprehensible, and which require a considerable amount of time and skill to untagle and turn into something resembling English.

“Oh, these are very short, though,” my caller insisted. “Only about 200 words each. They won’t take you very long at all, so surely you can give me an estimate?”

I politely asked her to send me the documents, promising to get back to her with the quote as quickly as possible. The documents duly arrived. Instead of the “200 words each” I’d been promised, one was almost 3000 words long, the other just under 1000. Quite a bit longer than 400 words, then.

Why do people do this, I wonder?

Of course, it could be a genuine mistake. These clients may, for all I know, be looking at the pages of tightky-packed text, and thinking, “Yup, that looks like about 200 words to me”. Maybe she said “two hundred words” when she really meant “two thousand”. Whatever the reason, though, time and time again I find that the clients who call me to ask for a copyediting or proofreading quote will drastically under-estimate their word count, and I sometimes can’t help but wonder whether they think I’m stupid. Maybe they think that by telling me the job is “just a couple of paragraphs” I’ll just blindly believe them, quote them a price and then not feel able to change it when I finally recieve the (much longer) text.

Maybe they think I won’t notice, and will charge them for the 200 words I’ve quoted for, regardless of the fact that it took me hours to do the work. Who knows. What I do know is that the quote today’s caller will be receiving will reflect the length the documents really are – not the length she told me they were.

The best example of this “creative downsizing” , incidentally, came a few months ago, when a would-be client contacted me to ask me to proofread his book. “It’s only ten thousands words long” he told me. Assuming that this was an e-book, or perhaps a children’s story, I asked him to send it over. The actual length of the manuscript? Three hundred thousand words. His excuse? “I must have mis-counted.” Yes, and you must have taken me for a fool if you thought I’d fall for that one…