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On hair and editing

How getting my hair cut made me think about my pricing structure.

One of the most difficult decisions a freelance editor must make is what to charge. Similarly, the consumer has to decide how much to pay.


I used to get my hair cut at one of the nicest salons in town. It’s a welcoming place with high-end décor, herbal teas and very professional staff. It’s also a full-service salon/spa, which meant I could get a manicure, a facial or a massage at the same time as getting my hair cut. I went there for years, getting my hair cut by various stylists, most recently by stylist A; let’s call her Amanda. For a haircut and blow-dry, I paid $80; for highlights, I have paid upwards of $200.

But I was bored. I’d been doing the same thing for too long, and I wanted a fresh pair of hands on my hair. After a disastrous experience at another high-end salon (the less said about that, the better), I ended up with stylist B, whom we’ll call Brenda. Brenda worked in a simple but pleasant salon, and she came highly recommended. There was no spa, no expensive décor, no fancy tea (though I was offered ordinary tea). She did an amazing job, making me look almost normal again after the disaster of the posh salon. I paid $40 for this haircut, and it was money well spent. I went to Brenda for over a year.

The problem was, Brenda was popular. I needed a cut in a hurry for a special event, and I couldn’t get an appointment. Desperate, I went online. Google reviews pointed me in the direction of stylist C, Cathy. Cathy worked in a small, basic salon in a run-down shopping centre. There was nothing glamorous about this place; it was assembly-line hair care at its most basic. This salon dealt in volume, and I was just the next in a long stream of customers. Still, I was happy with the result. Total cost: $20.

Three haircuts, three different price structures. Why am I telling you this? Because in comparing Amanda, Brenda and Cathy’s prices (or those set by their salons), I found myself in the same position as potential clients.


Let’s imagine that Amanda, Brenda and Cathy are editors, and that I’m a client with a manuscript in need of editing. I ask all three for a quote. They come back to me with figures of $800, $400 and $200 respectively, for essentially the same service. As a consumer with no knowledge of hair-cutting techniques, I was not in a position to recognise whether or not I was getting a technically excellent haircut from my three stylists; all three looked fine to me. In the same way, as a client, I may not be in a position to judge whether or not I am getting a good-quality edit. What am I to make of these numbers?

Let’s look at Amanda’s $800 quote. I would want to know why her quote is twice as high as Brenda’s. Does she have a lot more experience? Does she have specialised training? Great testimonials? Is she promising anything extra – the editing equivalent of an aromatherapy head and neck massage? I might think that anyone charging these prices must be really good; my reaction might be ‘You get what you pay for.’ Just as I would pay $80 for a really great haircut, I would pay $800 for a top-quality edit of a high-stakes document. I would tell myself, ‘You deserve this.’ On the other hand, if I couldn’t see anything special on Amanda’s website, I might think I was being ripped off.

At the other extreme, what about Cathy’s $200 edit? If I were a student on a limited budget, I might be tempted to think, ‘Wow, what a bargain!’ I might congratulate myself on saving $600. On the other hand, I might think, ‘I deserve better than this. I don’t have to choose the absolute cheapest.’ I would probably wonder what’s wrong with Cathy to make her so cheap. Is she short of work and desperate for clients? Is she untrained? Is she really not very good? I suspect a lot of clients would have the same reaction; my husband says he wouldn’t even take the dog to the cheapest groomer.

The $400 edit is the middle ground. My $40 haircut represented solid value for money. I didn’t get posh products, aromatherapy massages or the convenience of getting my nails done at the same time. I didn’t pay for those luxuries, either. I think the client who, after doing some research, chooses the $400 edit would recognise that they were getting a fair price from a competent editor.

So what should you charge?

First of all, I am not going to tell anyone else what to charge. Everyone needs to make their own decision about that. Neither am I going to touch the thorny issue of whether you should charge by the hour, the word or the project. I would, however, recommend reading the following before making a decision.

  • In this post, Richard Adin demonstrates that there is no such thing as a ‘going rate’.

  • Here, Walt Kania discusses here the idea of a fair price as far as the consumer is concerned.

  • Finally, Jake Poinier urges us to stop worrying about competitors who undercharge.

Back to hair

If anyone is wondering… I have not gone back to any of these three stylists, for the simple reason that I decided to grow my hair a bit longer and didn’t go near a hair salon for three months. Then, on my recent visit to the UK, I decided I needed a trim. I walked into a place on the main road in my hometown, got a trim, and was charged the equivalent of $70 – and I wasn’t even offered a cup of tea! I was not impressed.


Tania Pattison is an editor and proofreader specialising in English language teaching, education and related subjects. When not editing, she is an EAP textbook writer, curriculum designer and occasional university/college teacher. Image by kaleido-dp from Pixabay


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