How to Estimate the Cost of a Project Accurately and Reliably


It can feel challenging to estimate the cost of a communications project. Here are the go-to strategies we use to estimate the cost of a project quickly and accurately.

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. We’ve learned that a good price estimate takes a thorough inventory of the effort, factors in the unexpected, and understands the payment arrangements common to the industry. Let’s talk about the inventory first.

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 an Inventory Before You Try to Estimate the Cost

Most project cost estimates are based on historical metrics. The following inventory questions provide the data needed to apply these metrics and generate a reliable estimate:

  • How big should the final deliverable be (i.e., number of pages, words, elearning modules, web pages, slides, etc.)?
  • How much existing source material is available?
  • Do subject matter experts (SMEs) prefer to be interviewed remotely at the beginning of a project, or would an on-site kickoff visit be preferable?
  • Does pre-written content need deep, structural revision or just a high-level proofread?
  • How many client revision cycles do you want before receiving the final assets?
  • Should the specialist be a new hire, a contractor, or a remote partner?

Some projects may benefit from additional clarity, but these are the inventory questions we tend to ask before every project.

Run the answers to these questions through your historical metrics. 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 metrics yet, then consider finding a consultant to help.

Metrics are just a starting place. Certain variables make every project unique. That’s why it’s critical to factor in the unexpected.

Factor in the Unexpected

Even the most robust metrics need to be adjusted sometimes. There are certain hints that a project may exceed standard metrics. 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.
  • You want to embed lots of live data from other sources.
  • Stakeholders with limited experience want to edit complex documents over time.
  • In the absence of a component content management system (CCMS), source documents contain repeated or similar content that should be revised the same way in every instance.
  • There is an inordinate amount of source content to sift through, or the data is poorly organized.
  • A tight timeline requires extra creatives to maintain quality.

Do any of these factors apply to your next project? Before you get worried, 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.

Once you’ve calibrated your metrics, it’s time to estimate the cost of the project.

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

Estimate the Cost of Your Project

There are lots of ways to solve communication problems. For instance, the following solutions are available at ProEdit and are typical of the business communication industry in North America:

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. Also, they’re experts at turning unfamiliar subjects to bottom-line results. 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. Additionally, we never bill more than the estimated cost before getting clients’ permission first. 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. Engage a Retainer

Sometimes project needs vary and are on-going. In these cases, 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. Then, the project account manager provides a time estimate and obtains approval before creatives begin. Finally, 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. The cost of hiring new employees or contractors varies by market and position. Contact our staffing team for more specific estimates based on your region, industry, and job description.

4. Understand Other Billing Approaches

The industry offers other project and billing structures. For example, some freelancers on websites like Upwork, Fiver, or TaskRabbit bill per word. However, while we use word count to inform our estimated completion time, 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. One of the drawbacks to this approach, however, is the tendency to limit client involvement during development. It becomes easier for creatives to complete the project in a bubble. As a result, clients rarely get to review intermediate drafts before taking delivery of the 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

Estimating the cost of a project can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. 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.