Treat an editing test like a real work assignment. Set aside the time, use all your editing tools, and give it your undivided attention. Don’t try to knock it off on the bus ride home, or while making dinner. (Things I may have done myself.) But do set limits on how much free time is given to a test.
Handing over a manuscript to an editor is a big act of faith. They have to trust that the editor will
- catch the errors,
- not introduce any errors,
- get the manuscript in the shape they need to move it to the next stage,
- implement the style guide,
- do the right “level” of edit,
- work compatibly with the team,
- leave author queries that are clear, effective, and polite, and
- get it done on time.
The test aims to get a sense of how an editor will perform.
For the editor, the test helps by showing them the kind of materials that will get assigned, the extent of the style guide, and insight into how the team works. (I have bowed out of a potential new client when the content or style of the materials caused me physical pain.)
A reasonable test is two to four pages long, from the editor’s point of view. That leaves it up to the person making the test to make it include the elements they are wanting to verify. Some publishers give a brief paid assignment, or even a paid test, as their way of trying out a new-to-them editor.
Some clients ask for an entire chapter or paper to be edited as an unpaid test. Some expect a 26-page style guide to be learned—or one even longer! Editors don’t have to agree to that. They can negotiate pay, set a time limit, or walk away.
The editor can refuse to take a test and sometimes still get the gig. Successful approaches include simply pointing to the editor’s portfolio or doing part of the test—say, an hour or two—and returning it with a memo about the types of changes they’d make in the remainder. (I’ve personally had success with these methods several times.)
Most often, the editor hears nothing about their editing test. Even if, months later, they do get an assignment. When feedback does come, thank them; because that is invaluable. Also assess the kind of feedback received. It can alert the editor to some big red flags—such as expecting utter perfection or being not open to criticism. (One publisher told me “We don’t question the authors’ facts,” even though their conversion from 400 mL to 4 L was a clear mistake that would embarrass them in the final product. I knew immediately that I couldn’t work with them.)
Grin and Bear It
Sometimes, the potential client is so ideal that you simply bend over backward to do a first-rate job. This is a calculated risk—sinking that much time into a potential client. It rarely pays off, but sometimes an editor simply wants it bad enough to take the risk. The time sunk may be chalked up to marketing expense and professional development (learning).