What should you look for in an editing sample?

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Editing samples are a common first step when writers start a new working relationship with a copyeditor. After gathering some info about your project, most freelance editors will request a few pages from your manuscript to edit and send back as a digital file. Sample edits help the editor make an accurate fee estimate, but more importantly, they give a taste of the editor’s style.

Knowing how to evaluate copyediting samples will help you pick the right editor and get your revisions off to the best start.

Before you get your samples…

If you’re new to working with an editor, it’s a good idea to get more than one sample. This will expose you to multiple approaches, and it also provides examples of what digital markup looks like on your pages. Tracked changes can look overwhelming at first, so it’s nice to have a couple different files to play around with and get accustomed to. Some editors offer samples for free (myself included), while others might charge a small fee.

Use an editor’s online presence to help narrow down your options to two or three. If an editor blogs about publishing, take a look at their writing style. Poke around on their business site and make sure they communicate in a way that seems like a good fit for you. Their editorial feedback may not be written in exactly the same style, but you want to be working with someone who communicates well digitally, since that’s how you’ll be interacting.

Each editor may have a preference about what pages to edit for the sample (first pages are common, or pages from the middle of the book). But if you have a certain section of your book that’s giving you trouble, ask if they’ll edit pages from that chapter. You want to see how they will approach the stuff you need the most help with.

Once your editing samples arrive…

When you dig into the sample files, don’t be alarmed if there’s a lot of red! Digital tracked changes make even minor tweaks look like death by a thousand paper cuts. It’s a good idea to look through the “clean” version of the pages first, to see how they read with all of the editor’s changes incorporated. If the writing still sounds like you, that’s a great sign that the editor understands how to smooth things out while keeping your voice strong.

(Some freelancers send two versions of edited files: one clean, and one with the markup showing. If an editor only sends you one file, you can toggle back and forth using the Track Changes controls.)

If the clean pages sound good, then take a look at the editing markup. Has the editor deleted anything that changes the meaning of a sentence or paragraph? You’ll likely see comments along the margin of the page (though some editors make comments within the text using brackets or highlighting). Are the comments clear? Do they address issues directly, but without getting too harsh or too technical? If the editor has proposed multiple solutions to an error, do you have enough information to choose?

One area of difference between editors is how much they rewrite sentences when copyediting. Minor rewrites to fix grammar errors are pretty standard. But some editors make most of their larger suggestions in comments, while others do more direct tweaking within the text.

After you look through the markup, go ahead and accept or reject the suggestions, like you would when going through a real edit. (Be sure to save the original sample file, so you can look back at it later if needed. To ensure you’re keeping the original, use Save As and give your new file a different name.)

When you’ve addressed all the comments and changes, read this new clean version of your pages. Would you be happy with these being the final pages in your book? Did you keep most of the changes the editor made? If the answer to both is yes, you’ve probably found your editor!

After you’ve read your sample edits…

If you have questions for your prospective editors after seeing their styles, don’t hesitate to ask in your follow-up email or call. There are bound to be occasional points of confusion when going through the editing process, so think of any initial questions as a communication test run.

Follow-up emails are also a chance to work out minor adjustments to how an editor marks up your pages. For example, if you’re generally into an editor’s approach but would prefer less direct rewriting, let them know - they may be happy to accommodate you. Or if you’re fine with rewrites going straight into the text, pass that on. That way, you’ll end up with fewer comments to assess in the full edit.

Finally, remember that you and your editor don’t have to agree on every point to have an effective working relationship. Ultimately, all decisions rest with you (it’s your book!). But also be sure to sit with suggestions or changes that push your buttons. A good edit should feel like a creative muscle stretch: it may involve a little productive discomfort, but in the end, you feel stronger than you did before.

When you’re ready to commit…

After the sample edit, your editor will give you a final breakdown of fees, timelines for payments and project delivery, and all that nitty-gritty stuff. When the details are set, you’ll both sign a contract to make things official.

Some editors ask to see your full manuscript when they put together the sample and price estimate. If you’ve made any revisions after first submitting pages to your editor, make sure they have the most recent version of the book to work on.

Then it’s time for the easy part (or maybe the hard part): waiting for your edited manuscript to be finished! Thanks to the time you spent evaluating those editing samples, you’ll have confidence in your editor - and you’ll be one step closer to a pristine, powerful finished book.