We asked our parliament of wise owls, all Advanced Professional Members, to tell us their views on doing sample edits.
For me, a sample edit is often an indispensable part of the negotiation process with a potential new client. It helps me to better understand what the client is looking for from an editor and more accurately estimate how long a project might take. And it gives the client a feel for my editing style and allows them to ask questions about what I do and why.
This applies regardless of whether the client wants a light edit or one at the heavier or developmental end of the scale. No two editors will edit the same piece in the same way, and definitions of ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ vary. A sample edit cuts through these potential ambiguities and misunderstandings by laying examples of the actual proposed changes bare for both parties to see.
Another crucial benefit is that a sample edit allows me to gently show the client if I identify issues in their text that they haven’t foreseen. While I’m always clearly focused on exactly what the client wants for their text, I also keep in mind that they’re considering hiring me as an editorial expert, so I might see ways to enhance their text that they haven’t anticipated. A sample edit is a great forum for those kinds of discussions.
My policy on sample edits is quite specific, however. I offer free sample edits of up to 1,000 words with no obligation to the client. But I tend to offer the sample after an initial discussion of the project, when I’ve had a chance to assess whether my working style is likely to mesh with theirs. So, for me a sample edit is a way for the client to get a deeper idea of what I can offer and for me to refine my understanding of what they need – it isn’t the first stage of the process. This seems to work well, so I’m happy that my samples deliver a good return on investment for me while building my potential clients’ all-important trust in the service I can offer them.
If an enquiry about a copyediting project looks interesting, I will discuss with the potential client the kind of edit they are looking for and then do a sample edit on part of the text, usually a representative section from the middle. It helps me get a feel for the writing and alerts me to issues that we might need to sort out before the work begins. It also gives me a rough idea of how long the project might take to edit as a basis for my estimate. Perhaps more importantly, a sample edit also gives the enquirer an idea of the kind of edits I would make and the queries I might raise.
Only on one occasion was I paid for a sample edit. A potential client, with whom I had discussed their project, sent a chapter and a style sheet of sorts, and asked me to edit what I could in two hours. They wanted to see what each of the two or three editors from whom they’d requested a sample would do to improve their book. (I did get the contract, so it worked out well for me.)
I’ve always done free sample edits, although these days 80% of my work is for repeat clients so there’s no need.
With a new client, if the job looks like it might be for me I invariably explain how a sample edit will:
- give me an idea of the word rate (per hour) that I can manage and therefore how much to quote;
- tell me whether the job really is for me; and
- give the client a feel for whether I am a good fit from their point of view.
I don’t charge for the sample, and generally I’ll do a treatment on 1,000+ words.
I always make sure to mention, before asking for a sample, that there are any number of reasons the job might not be for me, so that the client is not offended if I end up passing.
One piece of advice. Having returned a sample, unless you are pretty sure you’re on the same page as the client, it’s worth getting fairly specific feedback as to how many changes/corrections, if any, they are likely to reject or question. If it’s more than one or two in the sample, be aware that you’ll end up spending unplanned-for time batting things to and fro during the edit proper, and simply quote accordingly. If it’s lots, then unless you’re in the early stages of your editing career, consider passing on the job – sometimes a writer is so wedded to the text that even sound edits will be rejected and the whole job will test your sanity. This doesn’t really apply if you’re relatively inexperienced, when rejected edits and lots of questions can be an opportunity to hone your skills!
I don’t have a one-size-fits-all policy when it comes to sample edits. They’re not something I routinely offer, but I will sometimes do one for a prospective client if the size of the project warrants it. Pitching for projects always involves some investment of time and a little risk, and I see this as an extension of that. However, I wouldn’t edit more than about 1,000 words, in that case. I don’t charge for the sample edit in this scenario, but usually the client goes on to commission me for the whole project so it tends to work out well.
Sometimes a client will ask for a sample edit after I’ve been commissioned, and this is usually a really good idea. It can help to set the author’s mind at rest about what a copyedit will entail, for example if they’ve had a difficult experience of being edited in the past. I can also gather feedback about how best to approach aspects of the work. In this case there is no risk that the project won’t go ahead (unless I were to do a horrendous job!), but it can still take extra time if there is subsequent discussion over the level of editing, which should be accounted for within the budget.
I have offered free sample edits for book-length projects since I started out 17 years ago. I review this every so often, as I do most of my business practices, but I’ve never found a good reason to change.
I ask the potential client to send a few pages from the middle. I glance through those pages to get an overall feel for the work, and choose a place to start where I think I can show what I can do for them. Then I set a timer for 20 minutes and edit away. I stop when the timer pings (at the end of a paragraph!) and count how many words I’ve edited. I multiply this by three to get an approximate number of words per hour on which to base my project quote. I don’t charge for that because it only takes about half an hour in total and lays the groundwork for what we can expect from each other, which is valuable in building trust.
I’m talking here about book-length projects, where half an hour is small in comparison to the total time and the value of setting clear expectations from the outset. For shorter pieces – a journal paper for an academic, for instance – I ask only for the word count, then estimate a fee based on experience and my large database of similar work. The scope of editing required on an academic paper is more defined, there’s less chance it will spiral beyond expectations, and the consequences are less serious if it does, so a sample is both more burdensome and less useful. And most of my new academic clients come from referrals so there’s already an element of trust there.
Most of my work is for publishers, so sample edits aren’t often part of the landscape. On the few occasions I’ve decided to do them, it’s often for my own purposes, to produce a quote, rather than to show the prospective client what I can do.
I once did a sample specifically for the prospective client (copyediting around 1,000 words, suggesting larger-scale fixes to extrapolate throughout the book). He instantly set red flags a-flying, asserting that I should have rewritten the sample for him, and that anything less than a rewrite was a proofread.
This shows the importance of establishing what the author wants to happen to the text – without that sample, the problems would have been legion. I sent him to the Directory to look for developmental editors.
It also shows the importance of having some kind of conversation with a prospective client rather than just accepting a job sight-unseen, or with minimal to-and-fro, especially from inexperienced authors.
I’ve never yet charged for a sample edit. For pricing purposes, I ask for a chunk from the middle (probably less polished) and a sample of references and notes, so I can see what the status of the text is; I may do a timed copyedit of 1,000 words of the middle bit of the text to get a feel for the pricing. The last time I did a sample (for a new publisher client), I got the whole manuscript, and picked a 1,000-word chunk at random for myself, happily catching a major blooper – Sherlock Holmes is a Mr, not an Inspector! I sent that bit back – and we agreed the deal.
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Photo credits: owl by Nicolette Leonie Villavicencio on Pexels.
Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.