Authors and publishers looking to hire an editor need to confirm the editor’s practical skills before making an offer. Editing tests and sample edits are the most common ways to do this. Both are effective, but they have distinct uses and can have very different results. If you want to be certain you are getting the right editor for your book at a fair price, you will do well to know the difference.
An Editing Test Helps the Client
When I was first starting out as an editor, I applied for a job at several publishing houses. I have done freelance work for many others. Nearly all of them asked me to take an editing test to prove I was qualified.
These tests would often include various sections that required different skills, such as spelling tricky or industry-specific words and formatting references, as well as a selection of writing to edit. The excerpt would be riddled with errors the publisher expected me to catch.
This was and is common practice. A well-crafted editing test is a very good way for publishers to get a feel for an editor’s skills before they hire them. And I never minded. In fact, I would include an offer to take a test in my cover letters. How else could I demonstrate not only that I had taken the courses but that I possessed the skills of a professional editor?
(I have even guided other publishers on how to do this; see this article in the IBPA Independent.)
Other Ways to Assess an Editor’s Skills
Early in my career, editing tests were my friend. They gave me a practical way to show my stuff to a publisher that would have many kinds of books and other projects for me to edit. Once I began working for individuals outside of traditional presses, however, I discovered I needed a different way to prove I was qualified.
Unfortunately, I found the most obvious options were flawed:
- Individuals wanting to hire me weren’t likely to have prepared a test, and I couldn’t exactly provide one for them. I would know all the answers.
- Preparing a portfolio of previous editing work would be difficult. I would need permission from the authors to share their work, and as a newer editor, my portfolio was slim.
- A list of recent titles, though helpful, can give a skewed impression of an editor’s work. Many people work together to publish a book. How much credit (or blame) can one editor take?
- Providing references or testimonials would give me some street cred, but a test is much more objective than endorsements from strangers.
All of these options have their uses (well, maybe not the first one; I don’t know anyone who creates their own test). Many editors’ websites, including my own, provide a list of recent titles as well as testimonials from satisfied clients. I believe both add to the picture of who the editor is and what their experience has entailed. If you need an editor, try to find either or both of these features on their website.
But these suggestions also leave something to be desired.
Thankfully, there is one more method for demonstrating the high quality of one’s work without all of the drawbacks. For authors, this is also likely the best way to learn what a particular editor can do for you.
A Sample Edit Helps Both the Client and the Editor
Somewhere along the line I must have heard about a sample edit, because after debating the other ways to woo clients, that’s what I decided to do.
Here’s how the sample edit works:
- A potential client sends me their manuscript, or at least 50 pages of it.
- I select 2–5 pages from the sample and edit it as I would the full manuscript. At the same time, I assess how much time it will take me to complete the project and what level of editing this project really needs.
- I return the edited sample to the author along with a cost estimate and scheduling information.
Sample edits have many benefits, for both editor and author:
- As the editor, I get to see what shape the manuscript really is in—not just what the author told me—and I can prove my worth to the author.
- The author gets to see what kinds of changes I am likely to make to their work and determine if we are a good fit.
This is the key difference: Whereas a test will tell you if the editor is qualified, a sample edit will tell you if this is someone you can trust with your writing project.
(Longtime readers will know I am a huge fan of sample edits. You can read more about them here and here.)
What This Means for You
If you simply want to assess your editor’s knowledge, the editing test may be right for you. Those who go this route should be sure they are crafting a test that is reflective of the challenges in the work.
Also—and this is very important—they should be up front with their editor that what they are sending is indeed a test and not a sample. Here’s why.
Remember what I said about using the sample edit to assess what level of editing your book needs? That has real-world implications. If I believe what you have sent is a representative sample but it is actually much worse than the real thing, then I will misjudge the quality of the writing and the cost estimate will reflect the additional work.
To ensure you aren’t overcharged, be transparent with your editor.
There’s nothing to say you can’t insert a few errors into your sample to make sure the editor can catch basic typos or address your pet peeves. However, it is counterproductive to submit something that does not reflect the type or amount of work the editor will be doing.
Now, if you want to know what the editor will do on live copy (i.e., your writing project), and you want to get a fair estimate of the cost involved, the sample edit is your better bet. That’s because the sample edit does double duty, helping you and the editor to know if this is a good match.
In the end, the most important thing to remember is this: Editing is an emotional time. You want to hire the editor who best fits you and your book. Sample edits and editing tests can help you do that.
For more about how to hire and work with a freelance editor, check out this series of posts.