How to Estimate the Cost of a Project Accurately and Reliably


No matter the size, scope, or budget, estimating the cost of a project can feel daunting. An accurate estimate depends on understanding your team, deliverables, tasks, and processes. In addition, a good price estimate takes a thorough inventory of the required effort, factors in the unexpected, and understands the payment arrangements common to the industry. 

Since 1992, ProEdit has helped hundreds of companies solve business communication problems of every kind and scale. As a result, our experience has made us experts at estimating the cost of copywriting, technical writing, editing, instructional design, and related disciplines. Here are the go-to strategies we use to estimate the cost of a project quickly and accurately.

A good price estimate takes a thorough inventory of the effort, factors in the unexpected, and understands the payment arrangements common to the industry.

Take Inventory

Most project cost estimates are based on historical metrics. It’s important to take an inventory of the proposed project before you try to estimate the cost. These are the inventory questions we at ProEdit tend to ask before every project:

  • How big should the final deliverable be? (e.g., number of pages, words, e-learning modules, webpages, slides)
  • How much existing source material is available?
  • Do subject matter experts (SMEs) prefer to meet remotely or on-site at the beginning of a project?
  • Does pre-written information require deep, structural revision or just high-level proofread?
  • How many revision cycles does the client want before receiving the final assets?
  • If needed, should the specialist be a new hire, a contractor, or a remote partner?

Some projects may benefit from additional clarity, but these questions are a good starting point. Run the answers through your historical metrics. Keep in mind that every organization’s metrics are as diverse as the talent they hire. Try to compare your project to similar projects you completed in the past. If you don’t have such metrics, consider finding a consultant to help with this process.

Expect the Unexpected

Certain variables make every project unique. That’s why it’s critical to factor in the unexpected. Consider the following factors to estimate the cost of a communication project more accurately:

  • A source document has many authors.
  • A document requires a disproportionate number of tables or figures.
  • The text uses many cross-references and other dynamic fields.
  • The final product will contain embedded live data from other sources.
  • Stakeholders with limited experience want to edit complex documents over time.
  • Source documents contain repeated or similar content that must be revised the same way in every instance (applicable in the absence of a component content management system, or CCMS).
  • The data is poorly organized or there is an inordinate amount of source content to sift through.
  • There is a tight timeline that requires extra creatives to maintain project quality.

It’s less stressful—and usually more affordable—to have realistic expectations before starting a project rather than surging ahead with a limited sense of scope.

calculator and pen sitting on a financial document
Reliable data and conservative expectations are the basis of an accurate cost estimate.

Estimate Project Costs

Once you’ve calibrated your metrics, it’s time to estimate the cost of the project. There are several solutions for project and billing structures common to the business communication industry. 

1. Partner with a Creative Team

Creatives can accomplish most projects remotely. ProEdit’s off-site projects team includes copywriters, technical writers, editors, illustrators, and instructional designers with diverse experience across industries and deliverable platforms. Projects are billed at an hourly rate plus any expenses, such as travel.

A statement of work (SOW) outlines each project’s parameters, the expected deliverables, the schedule, and the maximum estimated cost. Clients are ONLY billed for the actual number of hours worked on the project. Weekly or monthly invoices are accompanied by a status report detailing the work completed in those hours, the status of the project as a whole, and the plans for the coming week, as appropriate.

2. Set a Retainer

Sometimes, project needs vary and are on-going. In such an instance, a retainer-based, on-demand SOW can simplify project management. At ProEdit, clients set their own retainer amount representing at least eight hours of work. This allows the project account manager to provide a time estimate for approval before creatives begin. Project hours are worked against the retainer amount at rates comparable to project-based SOWs.

3. Staff New Talent

Staffing up is one of the most efficient ways to tackle projects that demand heavy, long-term cooperation between creatives and SMEs. Recruitment is one way that ProEdit operates as a vendor-partner with our clients. Contact our staffing team for more specific estimates based on your region, industry, and job description.

4. Explore Other Approaches

The industry offers other project and billing structures. For example, some freelancers on websites like Upwork, Fiver, or TaskRabbit bill per word. At ProEdit, we use word count to inform our estimated completion time but not our billing. We believe that cost-per-word billing encourages content stuffing and formatting shortcuts at the expense of quality. 

Another common billing arrangement is charging a flat fee for an entire project. However, client involvement tends to be limited during development in this approach. Creatives create the project in a bubble, and clients rarely get to review immediate drafts before delivery of final assets. ProEdit prefers to partner with clients throughout each project because experience has shown us that collaboration produces the best results.

Don’t Feel Intimidated: We Can Estimate the Cost Together

Accurately estimating the cost of a project has to consider several factors. So, if you’re working on a creative project, tell us about it. Our friendly experts can answer your questions and provide a clear, simple estimate that we’ll stand behind.