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Taking an editing test: the devil’s in the details

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2003. Editing tests for writers. Intercom April:12–15.

Times are hard, and many former writers are pounding the dirt looking for work. Some who have extensive experience with peer review or revising documents are expanding their job search to include careers as editors. However, new editors often face a barrier to entering the new profession: the editing test. Rather than taking a chance on unproven candidates, publishers and other clients typically ask would-be editors to review short documents that test three main aspects of an editor’s skills:

Editing tests are like job interviews: they’re your one chance to earn the client’s confidence and persuade them to hire you. In this article, I’ll provide a few test-taking lessons based on my own experience as someone who has hired editors in the past and based on anecdotes from colleagues who have done so. Although I’ve written this article from the perspective of those who must face an editing test, the advice is equally valuable to those who have already passed the test and are performing ongoing work for a client or employer. Because even a full-time employee’s supervisor and colleagues are “clients” making use of their editorial skills, I’ll use the term “client” to refer to all author–editor relationships, whether temporary or ongoing.

One cautionary note: the fact that you’re a skilled writer doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll make a good editor, since the skills required of an editor are very different from those required of a writer. I’m writing this article based on the assumption that you already possess the necessary skills, and I won’t try to teach those skills.

A test is a test—and so is subsequent work

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and that’s doubly true with editing tests. Because you won’t get a second chance to convince a client that you’re the editor for the job, you must edit as close to perfection as possible. Errors will rarely be forgiven, and you generally won’t be asked to explain why you missed an error or chose not to correct something. The fact that you caught and fixed an enormous number of problems doesn’t lessen the impact of missing a single crucial error or a few significant errors.

Even after you no longer have to formally pass a client’s tests, this only means that you’ve moved on to a different type of test—one of your ability to maintain a high level of quality over the long term. Working editors constantly confront the stress of aiming for the elusive “perfect edit”, and most of us concede that we’ll never hit that target. But we do strive constantly to come as close as humanly possible to perfection. At a minimum, we aim to eliminate all errors that typical readers would notice, even if another editor might e-mail us later with a “gotcha!” to let us know we slipped up. If you relax too much after passing the initial test and start missing errors, clients will gradually lose faith in your ability. Once that happens, you’ll find yourself seeking new work faster than you can say “typo”.

Agree on the requirements

Always ask new clients for clear instructions on what they expect you to do. Even editors spar verbally over the different definitions and scopes of copyediting, substantive editing, developmental editing, and proofreading, so how can we expect our non-editor clients to use these terms consistently? If the client doesn’t provide explicit instructions, use a sample contract such as the one provided by the Editors’ Association of Canada ( as the basis for a checklist of what kinds of edits the job requires. Don’t forget to agree on which word processor you’ll use if the test involves onscreen editing. Ideally, get all your questions answered up-front, before you begin the work. Questions will inevitably arise as you work, but rather than pestering the client with dozens of ad hoc queries, save up your questions and ask them all at once. Ask only essential questions, and itemize any other editorial decisions in a style sheet (which I'll discuss in the next section).

Find out the extent to which you should reformat a manuscript. Some clients may ask you to insert special tags to help their production staff typeset and compose the book. Reformatting, coding, and other cleanup will often be done by a client’s production staff, but some clients now ask their editors to perform at least a basic version of these functions. For example, large publishers often develop an extensive set of macros (short programs) for their word processor that they use to remove problems such as double spaces, double carriage returns, inconsistent tagging, and so on; an additional set of macros prepares edited manuscripts for typesetting. But smaller or less-sophisticated clients commonly ask you to fix such problems for them, which leads to edits such as tagging text consistently with the correct paragraph styles.

If you plan to do something the client didn’t request, ask for permission first. If that’s not feasible, clearly identify what you’ve done and why you’ve done it, and ensure that the unrequested changes are easy to undo if the client chooses not to accept them.

Edit with style

Always ask what style guide the client wants you to use; failing to ask this question reveals you as an amateur, since using Sun’s excellent style guide for computers (Read me first!) will generate an unnacceptable amount of cleanup work for the client if the job requires The Chicago Manual of Style. If you can’t ask this question or if the client expresses no preference, pick an appropriate guide for the genre of editing you’ll be doing and justify your choice. For example, if you’re working in the sciences, the Council of Biology Editors guide (now published by the Council of Science Editors, is a better choice than Sun’s guide or the University of Chicago’s guide.

Of course, not all editorial problems will be covered by these guides, and you’ll have to let your client know how you handled these problems. Where do you communicate and justify your choices? In a style sheet. As you edit, list all the stylistic decisions not covered in the main style guide that you made for the sake of consistency (e.g., capitalization, date styles, literature citations, spellings) and any assumptions you made in your editing. Concisely justify any decisions for which you had multiple options so the client knows you did your homework rather than simply pronouncing a subjective opinion; a list of the style guide or guides you followed for specific editing decisions fits well here.

Style sheets are important tools for larger works because you and the client can both use them as a checklist for enforcing consistency. For your part, use the style sheet during your second pass to ensure that you’ve been consistent in your edits. Clients, on the other hand, can assess your choices and undo any changes they don’t agree with. Style sheets also provide important checklists for a client’s production staff, since they can hand this information to a proofreader for use during proofreading.

Set a deadline, but take your time

Clients always want the job done yesterday, and particularly so when they’re behind schedule. With editing tests, there’s a strong temptation to return the test immediately to demonstrate how fast you are, and that can lead to sloppy work. Even with a tight deadline, experienced editors learn to ask when the client wants the job done—and when they need the job done, which is often considerably later. In general, aim for the “want it done by” date, but use the “need it done by” date as the latest possible date to return the work if you feel you need more time.

Returning a job quickly should never mean that you rush through the work, unless the deadline’s so tight you really have no choice. (In that case, you might want to negotiate a lower quality level with the client beforehand to avoid disappointing them.) Unlike the tests we all endured in school, editing tests are relatively open-ended, and provided that you respond within a few days, you usually have ample time to do the job right. Don’t let the pressure of “taking a test” tempt you to make only a single pass through any manuscript; time permitting, even the best editors generally make two or more passes through a manuscript, depending on the complexity of the job. For many high-volume publishers working on tight deadlines, correcting problems at the proof stage becomes very expensive ($1 per correction and sometimes much more), so catching all mechanical problems such as missing punctuation during editing rather than leaving them to be fixed during proofreading can save large amounts of money.

Ideally, you should edit the test document one day and return to the manuscript several hours or (better still) a day or more later. You’ll find that your state of mind changed enough in the intervening time to let you spot many things you didn’t see the first time through. Time gives distance, distance gives objectivity, and objectivity helps you focus on details you missed the first time through.

Don’t limit your edits to the onscreen file

Those of us who edit for a living eventually work well enough on-screen to come very close to our accuracy when editing on paper; some editors claim better accuracy with a word processor than with paper, and that's certainly the case for me. But even today, there remain obvious legibility problems with onscreen type; the best computer fonts, displayed on 96 dpi screens, still don’t match the legibility of 600-dpi or better laser prints.

More important than the relative merits and demerits of the onscreen and print media is the fact that if you miss something once because of some quirk of the editing medium, you’re likely to miss it again during the next pass. However, changing media may eliminate these particular problems, and a new medium can make the text appear sufficiently different that you approach the job with a fresh eye. You can achieve this fresh eye in two ways. First, if you have the time and desire to do so, create a second copy of the edited file, incorporate all your edits, and print out the resulting document so you can reread it without the distraction of tracked revisions cluttering the screen. Second, set your software to conceal the revisions, then re-edit the manuscript. The latter approach may be slightly less effective because you haven’t changed media, but it still reveals many errors introduced by your edits or missed during the first pass.

Query authors judiciously

Where possible, minimize the amount of work clients must do to review and incorporate your edits, but don’t let that advice mislead you into neglecting queries simply because you feel you’re asking too many questions. Authors can certainly see and approve (or reject) your edits even if you don’t explain them, but you can end up looking foolish if you make a change you’re not confident about rather than querying the author to confirm that you’ve understood their intent.

Do your homework. Research a problem rather than asking naïve questions that place the burden of the work on the author. If you can find an answer, the author won’t have to. But don’t forget that the author is the expert, and asking a question is better than making corrections based on incorrect assumptions and hoping someone spots and fixes the problems you’ve just introduced. Authors generally appreciate a well-framed, helpful question that hints at or provides a solution to an editing problem. Even if your proposed solution is incorrect, it sometimes reveals a problem sufficiently well that the author can understand and fix it without your help.

Edit tactfully

Don Bush has been writing about editing for more years than I’ve been in the business, and his Intercom column (The Friendly Editor) offers important insights on how to work with authors. Editing is a painful and embarrassing process for many writers because it reveals their flaws all too clearly. The more critical or “superior” you sound in your comments and questions, the more likely you are to create an adversarial relationship with the author that interferes with the collaborative process of working together to perfect a manuscript. Conversely, if your comments are neutral and uncritical, and offer easy solutions to problems (rather than simply saying “this is wrong, you figure out what to do about it”), you’re more likely to establish an effective collaboration. That makes life easier for everyone and produces a better manuscript in the end.

Don’t just focus on the words

Finding subtler errors than just typos, such as illogical or inconsistent statements, can certainly annoy an author. After all, you seem to be questioning their writing skill or competence in a field, or pointing out their stupidity. But these errors are important, and can embarrass an author far more than simple typos if they make it into print. Thus, pointing out errors in a helpful rather than critical manner generally earns you the author’s gratitude. Failing to at least point out these errors means you’ve failed in a major editorial responsibility: helping the author to look good.

Whether you have leeway to make such corrections depends on your agreement with the client. If you’ve been asked to confine your work to copyediting, you may have neither authority nor permission to deal with more difficult or important issues. A colleague recently encountered this problem in a history manuscript she was editing for a university press; as a trained historian, she objected to some of the author’s logic, but her client asked her not to raise these issues. In contrast, I perform extensive content editing for my clients because I have considerable expertise in the subject and my job includes the responsibility to critique the logic and content of their publications.

Even if you’re only asked to do copyediting, don’t hesitate to point out major errors, particularly if these are easy to fix or if they would cause major embarrassment for the author. The client and the author are always free to reject your comments, but if you don’t bring the problem to their attention, they have no opportunity to fix it and might blame you for not raising the issue.

Review your edits

In addition to my day job, I also do freelance editing for Japanese and Chinese scientists writing articles for English journals. [Looking back from 2005: I'm now a full-time freelancer in this line of work, though my former employer remains a steady client.—GH] In this work, I always wait a day or two before reviewing my edits and returning the edited manuscript. This approach accounts for the fact that even the best editors are human, and inevitably miss things on the first pass. Because perfection is truly important to my client, he also asks a second editor to quickly review my edits as a quality-control measure. I don’t recommend “cheating” in this way on an editing test, because it sets a standard you won’t be able to live up to in your future work. But there’s no reason why you couldn’t consult with editorial colleagues on different ways to solve a particular problem. Provided that you’re the one who makes the final decision, consulting human authorities is no different than consulting multiple dictionaries or style guides.

Don’t forget the spelling checker

Always use the spellchecker one last time before returning an edited manuscript. If you’re editing in Microsoft Word, don’t forget to reset the spell checker, since Word will helpfully neglect to check text it thinks you’ve already checked in an effort to speed up this task. To force Word to check everything, open the Tools menu, select Options, and click the Spelling & Grammar tab; at the bottom of this dialog box, click the button “Recheck document” if this is available.

A final spellcheck both reveals errors that you missed in your initial editing and identifies errors you introduced yourself while typing corrections in your second pass. Typos are the most obvious hazard, but when you’re editing using revision tracking (e.g., Word’s “track changes” feature), with changes displayed on the screen, it’s easy to miss such problems as inadvertently deleted spaces between words or words that appear twice (e.g., “the the”) because you retyped part of a sentence, deleted the retyped part, but missed the doubled word in your deletion.

Getting it right

George Bernard Shaw once noted that “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” By that standard, most authors lead very honorable and useful lives indeed. But when it comes to editing tests, and the ongoing editing you’ll be doing once you’ve passed these tests for each new client, strive for a different kind of honor: doing such a good job that your clients are thrilled to work with you and inform other clients how good you are.


My thanks to Jane Lyle, Managing Editor of Indiana University Press, for a reality check and other commentary on an early draft of this article.

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved