What is a sample edit?
When looking for a copy-editor to work with, there are a couple of factors to consider. Their experience – in broad terms and within your particular genre – their qualifications, their affordability, and whether they are generally a good personality fit, to name just a few.
If you’re trying to whittle your selection down from a few copy-editors who fit the bill, the best way to do this is to request a sample edit. This is when an editor agrees to edit a short extract of your full manuscript.
Why a sample edit is good for authors
From the author’s side, a sample edit is the best way to see how an editor would tackle your work. From this short sample, you can gather an awful lot, from the technical – such as how the editor uses Track Changes or other tools – to the stylistic – such as whether they flag queries as in-line comments or in a separate file.
There is no right way to edit, and no two editors will work on the same project in the same way. And the style you prefer might be very different to what another author wants from an editor. The sample edit is where you get to see whether a particular editor’s approach is the right one for you.
Why a sample edit is good for editors
From the editor’s side, we can use the sample edit to determine the scale of the project. Just as no two editors are the same, no two 80,0000-word manuscripts are either. The word count might be identical, but one could need considerably more work than the other, and we can’t know this until we get eyes on the writing itself.
Not every editor builds their pricing from a sample edit, but it’s definitely a good way for them to determine how long a project will take, and this is useful for scheduling. We know to block out, say, a month for one project and two weeks for another.
Is a sample edit free?
Sometimes, but not always. A lot of editors do offer free sample edits, but others will charge a small fee. You have to remember that sample edits can take up anything from fifteen minutes to an hour of an editor’s time, and while some are willing to do that labour for free as a marketing tool, others aren’t – and both are well within their rights to do so.
What to look for in a sample edit
First and foremost, you’ll want to look for what kind of errors the editor has flagged. Did they catch everything you hoped they would? Did one editor miss some things another editor spotted? Additional note here: no editor can promise 100% error-free work. It’s unattainable. Most of us, however, will aim for as few missed errors as possible – of course!
Next, you should consider how they flag their errors. I personally like to use Track Changes and I mark every edit that I make (even the small ones like removing double spaces after a full stop). Other editors will only track the bigger changes like incorrect word use or spelling mistakes. I sometimes like to justify my edits in a comment so you can understand my logic; others will make the change and move on. It is up to you to decide which approach you prefer.
Linked to this point, it’s helpful to consider the personality fit. You won’t get all of this from a sample edit – a lot will be determined by their communication style and website – but you will probably see a slice of the editor’s personality in their edit. I tend to get very engaged with my client projects, and I’ll drop comments by things I like or guesses about where I think the plot is going. I’ve had clients who really appreciate that approach, but there are some authors who prefer a more formal dynamic, and that is entirely their prerogative.
You aren’t just looking for the best editor; you’re looking for the editor who is the best fit for you.
This is a term whispered with horror and frustration throughout the editing community. A Frankenedit is when an author requests sample edits from multiple editors, sending each one a different section so you ultimately get ‘free’ editing on a larger portion of your manuscript.
There’s a reason I’ve put quote marks around the word ‘free’, there. It’s because I want to highlight that while this editing does technically come without the exchange of money, it’s not going to be a very good overall edit. As I’ve mentioned, all editors have their own style and they’ll pick up on different things in your writing. All those little samples you’ve sent out are not going to fit together cohesively. Quite simply, it’ll be the Frankenstein’s monster of edits… hence the name.
And, just so you’re aware, editors talk to each other. We can usually tell when a request for a sample edit is a little suspect and we will ask other editors if they’ve had similar requests. I wouldn’t suggest trying it.
Finding the best editor
Getting your manuscript edited by a professional can be a daunting task. You're putting your pride and joy in the hands of another, and that requires a great deal of trust. A sample edit isn't going to tell you absolutely everything you need to know about an editor, but it will give you a good understanding of how well you're going to work together.
Beyond that, if you're upfront with your editor at the beginning and you make sure that you both understand the scope of the project, this can be the start of a very rewarding relationship.