Editorial Tests – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

worry shock stepping out of comfort zone
She was asked to take a ‘test’. It’ll only take a few hours they said.

You’ve trained really hard, you’ve been working in your chosen field for years and life is good. Like any freelance professional you seek out new clients and, from time to time, may approach publishers to see if they have any vacancies in their freelance pool. All is well.

Then you get an email asking for an editorial test.

I don’t know about you, but the very word ‘test’ makes me shiver.

There seems to be a lot of talk right now about editorial tests. Publishers send them out to make sure prospective new freelances know their stuff, and private clients seem to think it’s a good idea, although they may call it an ‘editorial sample’. But when is it appropriate to take a test?

If you are a member of a professional society such as the CIEP you will have had to prove your competence before reaching your grade, surely that’s enough?

Perhaps, perhaps not.

Editing is a very subjective field – put ten copy-editors in a room, give them the same extract to work on and no two will edit the same. Of course they’ll all pick up on the ‘nuts and bolts’ errors, but the rest will fall to style and the type of work each editor is used to editing. A fiction editor will not edit in the same way as a chemical engineering specialist.

Editorial tests can fall in to three categories – when they are good they can bring a new working relationship that is beneficial to both parties, when they are bad they can highlight problems that perhaps are best steered clear of, and when they are ugly you need to say ‘no’ and walk away – quickly.


The Good

Publishers need to know that you are the right fit for them. A small extract to edit is fine, taking perhaps an hour or less of your time. This falls into good business practice for you both; they can see if you are right for them and you can do the same. You will hopefully receive a style sheet and adequate instructions to carry out the test to the best of your ability and in a way that will not impact on your working day too much.

Private authors and business clients also need to know that you are the right fit for them. They may ask you to edit a small section of their work or, on the other hand, you can offer to do this for them. A small ‘free sample’ will let you both see if you can work together and if your expectations are the same. Less of a test, this is the time to make sure that your corrections are easy for the client to understand and that you are both singing from the same style sheet. Again, an hour or so (preferably less) is an acceptable length of time to spend on your sample. Any more and it is perfectly fine to ask for payment.


The Bad

Publishers who send out tests that will take longer than an hour, perhaps, need educating. While a small test is fine, when you are a freelance time is money and there are only so many hours in a day. Spending hours on a test means you are losing income on a project that may not produce a future working relationship. In-house staff can be a bit more generous with their time, freelances can’t.

Publishers who send out editorial tests, then leave you waiting for six months can be a problem. It makes the freelance worry that they’ve made a massive mistake. Of course, everyone in the publishing house is probably busy, but if a quick email is not forthcoming it may not bode well for any future working relationship.

Authors who ask you to edit a whole chapter as a free sample can be problematic. While looking at a whole chapter can flag up issues that may arise in the rest of the book, that sample may not be representative of the manuscript. I always ask to see a number of chapters, then send along a sample of my editing from somewhere around the middle of the book. Besides, a whole chapter is likely to take way longer than an hour or so. Also, it always begs the question, how many different chapters have been sent to different editors for a ‘free sample edit’?

Authors who ask for their ‘editorial test’ to be taken, then tell the editor that:

1) they can’t afford, and could never have afforded, the editor’s rates,

2) the editor is wrong and has missed so many errors because it’s different from what they were taught at school,

3) they have another few editors in mind, and would the editor mind completing another ‘test’ are bad.


The Ugly

Those who fall into the ugly category tend to ask editors for highly complicated, time-consuming editorial tests, then hit the editor with a rate that turns out to be around, or even less than, the living wage. If a publisher asks for a free test with a large amount of pages, so many that it will take a large proportion of your time, and will not budge, then things are getting ugly.

Authors and business clients with high demands, who expect editors to complete an editorial test, then refuse to accept that changes are legitimate, and take up a large amount of the editor’s time, are on the way to becoming ugly. While you both need to make sure that you are a good fit, prospective clients who pick away at a free edit, or expect 100% accuracy are tipping the ugly scales and need to be walked away from.


These are just a few examples, I’ll bet as a freelance you have your own horror stories. Thankfully I have had very few of the bad experiences, and more of the good ones. I often give ‘editorial samples’ if I feel it would be appropriate, but never more than an hour.

Would I give a free editorial test comprising 50 pages of text, with no style sheet and a quick turnaround time? Hell no.

5 Comments on “Editorial Tests – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

  1. As someone who loses 30 I.Q. points at the mere mention of the word “test,” I especially dread the editorial variety. And yet — as someone who has also administered them — I agree they can help identify qualified editing candidates. Editorial tests really shouldn’t take longer than an hour, though. I would think thrice about working with a client whose test was 50 pages of text with no style sheet and a quick turnaround. That’s not a test; that’s a warning!

  2. I also hate these tests. They fill me with self-doubt and I find myself checking and re-checking and questioning myself over the most basic elements. I find a conversation about experience much more useful, but that might be due to my area of publishing!

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