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  • Elizabeth McIvor

Speed vs Detail

In this post, I ponder a question that plagues freelance writers and editors the world over.

There’s a question that I ask myself very often as a freelance writer and editor.


Is it better to get the job done as fast as possible or to deeply invest myself into ensuring the job is done to the highest standard possible?


The answer is not a simple one. More often than not, it depends on the job, the client, the number of projects I’m working on at that time, how much sleep I’ve had that week, and when my bills are due.


To be perfectly truthful, it’s a question I have exhausted myself trying to answer, particularly during the brutal intensity of The Pandemic. Operating as a sole trader, especially in a creative field, is enough of a challenge. Then these added stresses of a global horror show and a few mental health crises have been tossed on top with all the elegance of glass shards on a balloon cake. In some ways, it’s a reframing of the age-old “quantity vs quality” question, but let’s not look at that too hard. I’m trying to pretend I’m making a unique and original point here. Shh.


Solving my conundrum isn’t as simple as a pros and cons list. You see, I have a history of agonising over every word I put on a page. It’s easy to get stuck editing over and over again to be positively sure that each word falls into place with the delicate perfection of a stained-glass window. The problem is, that’s not a particularly practical way to operate when you’ve got a client who demands 40,000 words edited per week. Yes, this is a real example and, yes, I did quit shortly thereafter because I was losing my mind.


In a scenario such as this, detail must by necessity be cast aside in favour of pure speed. Many clients will prefer short turn-around times of multiple pieces of copy of functional quality over one piece of flawless content that takes twice as long. Though my natural instinct is to test each word like I’m at a wine tasting, it’s worth remembering that sometimes it’s better to just complete the job to a suitable standard within the deadline. For most clients, that is more than enough.


Things get more complicated when a project is larger, more complex, or (in the case of editing) needs to be taken down to the bones and rebuilt. Often, factors such as these are what I consider when putting together an estimated price for the client. Sometimes, however, I don’t have that flexibility. For example, if it’s a case of I have [insert number] days to complete said project for [insert price], then that question of speed vs detail raises its odd little head.


As a professional creative, knowing that a piece of work is some of my finest writing/editing/proofreading nourishes me and leaves me with a good chance of a glowing review by the client. However, reviews don’t pay the bills. If I’ve had to put off or turn down other projects to dedicate my time to one large, complicated project, my income is negatively impacted, even if my reputation gets a boost.


The answer to the question of Speed vs Detail is, ultimately, subjective and one I must untangle for each project. My answer will differ depending on if I’m writing vs if I’m editing; if the job is a set price vs hourly rate; if the project is creative vs if it is business copy. My job requires such a fine-tuned ability to estimate how long a project will take, how much mental energy it will need, what that time and energy is worth, and whether the fee is worth the time and energy.


What are some ways that you address the question of Speed vs Detail? How do you balance maintaining the quality of work without losing time polishing each word? Do you have different approaches to creative and non-creative projects? Let me know in the comments!


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