An American Editor

February 13, 2012

The Business of Editing: Editing Tests

A constant refrain over the years has been, “I’ve been editing for x years and they still want me to take a test!” Some editors routinely refuse to take editing tests, considering them an insult, whereas others take every test offered and wonder why they aren’t getting work from the companies that tested them.

On my editor side, I understand the reluctance to take an editing test. After all, I’ve been a highly successful editor for 28 years and the person who is likely “grading” my test (should I take it) probably has no more than a few years’ experience and maybe not even more than a few months. On my business side, however, I have learned — the hard way — the importance of requiring a test, regardless of the number of years of experience the editor claims.

Tests are a difficult proposition. For all the reasons that two editors will edit the same manuscript differently, so will editors complete a test differently. And taking a test means trying to figure out what the test giver is really looking for.

I can’t tell you how many times over the years I have taken a test and thought I did exceptionally well, only to never hear again from the test giver. Clearly I missed something or what I did may have been correct but not what the test giver wanted. The third possibility, which does occur with more frequency than it should, is that the test giver lacks the experience to properly grade a completed test.

In the beginning, oh so many years ago, I thought there was a key to being successful with editing tests. Ultimately, I learned there is none – unless I could figure out what the test giver was testing for. I have taken tests where the key was intricate knowledge of a particular style manual, others where it was how queries were framed, others where it was to determine my knowledge of the tools I was using, and yet others where it was a test of my knowledge of English usage. Needless to say, I suppose, is that there were also numerous tests where I had no clue as to what knowledge was being tested.

When I first began hiring editors, I looked at their résumé and hired them or not based on those. No test was given. My belief was that an experienced editor would be capablof handling the work. To my chagrin, I learned that, more often than not, it was not true and hiring the editor without a test was a major mistake, occasionally costing me clients. Consequently, I no longer will hire an editor who hasn’t taken a test and passed it.

That experience also convinced me that if I wanted new clients, I had to be willing to take their tests. And so I am. Passing or failing the test is a hit-or-miss proposition because the tests rarely give enough guidance and it is difficult to discern exactly what I am being tested for.

Often the tests are a hodgepodge of author manuscripts — a paragraph from this author, another from that author. The more hodgepodgy the test is, the more likely it is a test for developmental editing rather than copyediting. The less hodgepodgy the test is, the more likely it is a straight copyediting test and/or a test to demonstrate your knowledge of your editing tools.

When taking a test, a comprehensive stylesheet is important. The stylesheet gives you an opportunity to indicate just how fluent you are with the resources you would be expected to use should you be hired by the test giver. I make it clear, for example, in the stylesheet exactly which dictionaries I used and that I am aware that, while dictionary A prefers xyz and dictionary B prefers xzy, I chose dictionary A to be the dominant dictionary.

I also use the stylesheet to explain my choices when it comes to English usage. I am not afraid to say that Chicago Manual of Style prefers abc over acb but Garner’s Modern American Usage prefers to distinguish between the two, and to use each in specific circumstances. I also try to point out where style manuals differ. My objective is to demonstrate my mastery of the tools I will be expected to use.

My point is that I assume the test giver needs to be educated and that I need to be the teacher. It may not win me the job, but I can at least believe I did all I could to get the job. Both test givers and takers need to remember that editing is often a matter of personal preference and, because that is so, more detailed explanation is often required.

I also include a cover statement that explains my approach to editing. It is important, I think, for the test giver to understand the steps I take with every author manuscript and why I take these particular steps. Such understanding can help explain the editing choices I made on the test. My cover statement also includes a listing of the tools and resources I have and use. To say that I am a medical editor implies that I own at least one medical dictionary, but it is so much clearer when I say that I own and use both Dorland’s and Stedman’s medical dictionaries and that I have a subscription to the tri-monthly Stedman’s Medical Spell Checker software.

The point is that I have a lot of competition for the work. The competition is both domestic and foreign in the Internet Age, so passing a test is insufficient by itself. I believe I need to do more to impress the test giver that, of all the candidates for the work, I am the best choice and that the test giver can back up any decision to choose me with all this additional information.

Does it always work? No. There are lots of reasons why I may not be chosen; reasons that fall outside the parameters of the test. The test is but one facet of a multifaceted decision tree. A number of times in recent years I have been told that I was by far the best choice except for how I calculate a page or my minimum fee, or because I only work on a per-page basis and cannot accept an hourly rate, or that my payment terms are at odds with their terms, or whatever.

Test taking is necessary. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet to assure that one passes the test and fulfills every other consideration that enters the hiring decision. Like life itself, test taking is a gamble and the odds are stacked.

11 Comments »

  1. I am seeing a really ugly trend: advertising on job boards for web content writers/editors/proofreaders/copywriters and testing applicants—unpaid, of course—and using the test results to effectively have their websites re-written. All for free!
    I have run into two such schemes in the past two months of looking for work. My policy now is that IF I am going to be tested, I charge for the time I test. Period. No more seeing my “test” on companies’ websites.

    Comment by Terre Spencer — February 13, 2012 @ 6:48 am | Reply

  2. I recently completed a pair of tests for potential new clients, both established book publishing houses. I was applying to be on their freelance copyeditor list for fiction, and had connected with these organizations through colleagues in my network. Both organizations now have my resume and website/LInkedIn profiles, and one has my list of references. But neither will consider hiring me without seeing how I handle their tests.

    It reminds me of my word processor and secretary days. I could provide any experience I wanted on paper, but those qualifications only served to get me onto the short list of candidates to be considered. My credibility was established (or not) by the typing test. That was the only tangible, measurable indicator of my skill and proof of my claims.

    It’s the same with editing tests, I believe. As Rich points out, editing is a subjective and variable skill, and anyone can claim to be an editor and provide credentials up the wazoo. But how do you measure knowledge and judgment?

    The tests I just took were night and day. One was hardcopy; the other was electronic. One was a few pages of one text; the other was divided into three sections: spelling; publishing vocabulary, editing/proofing symbols, and coding; and 20 or so sentences with deliberate, common errors covered by Chicago Manual of Style and Words into Type. No style sheet involved in either exercise. Both tests were shorter and easier than others I have taken.

    I believe I performed reasonably well on them. But, of course, I haven’t heard a thing back! — because now the staff members have to take time out of their overloaded schedules to review my work and make a decision, check my references, and whatever else, during a time when it’s not critical to add new freelancers to their roster. If they decide I’m not up to snuff, then they have to find a way to let me down gently (which task, naturally, they’ll put on the back burner. If they’re lucky, I’ll make it easier for them by not following up). If they want me, they still have to find the time to contact me and go through the formalities.

    But I don’t resent them for all this; it’s part of the business. It’s hard to start up with new people; always a risk, and loss of precious time and money if you make a bad call (especially in this era when we’ll likely never meet each other). The cycle of test-taking helps everyone get a better idea of what they’re getting into. If I’m ever in the position of hiring somebody, I’d sure as heck want to see something of their work!

    Comment by Carolyn — February 13, 2012 @ 7:15 am | Reply

  3. Imagine that you want to hire someone to paint your house. Would you ask the painter to paint a sample wall, at no charge? No. You’d ask around to see what other people thought of this contractor.

    Editing is a little different because you don’t hire only local people, but references should play a big role. Also, perhaps, a questionnaire describing previous books edited, and what kind of editing you did on each project, as well as determining your approach to editing, as each client may want something different.

    Another approach would be to pay the potential editor to edit the first chapter (assuming it’s a book) and then make a decision on the basis of that.

    Comment by Gretchen — February 13, 2012 @ 8:57 am | Reply

    • In the case of the painter, I would ask for a list of houses he had paintedd in the area and I’d check them out as well as speak to the owners. I can see a sample of the painter’s work, even if he/she didn’t paint a sample wall for me.

      As you note editors are different. Most books do not list the name of the editor, so I have no way of verifying that an editor actually edited a book unless I inquired of the press. But even then, I am unlikely to find out. Most presses would no more comment on an editor’s competence than on the reason for firing an employee.

      I think the length of tests need to be short. I personally put a time limit on how much time I will sepnd taking a test. Once I reach that limit I stop. I will submit the test with an explanation as to why it is not complete. I also use a test to gauge whether I would wnat to work for a press. If they send me what I consider to be an abusive test, for example, one that is 15 pages or longer, I simply don’t bother. I know I am not going to be happy working with that press. OTOH, a 2- to 3-page test is not unreasonable.

      The problem with giving an editor a real chapter to use as a test and pay them to do it is that it is unlikely that the chapter explores the areas I am interested in testing. In addition, I do not share client work with people who are not working for me. Besides, if you start paying editors to take a test, the word will get around and how do you control it? Isn’t every applicant entitled to prove their mettle by taking the test?

      Comment by americaneditor — February 13, 2012 @ 9:35 am | Reply

  4. One point to consider is that we, as editors, often waste our own time and the time of potential clients when we take their tests without first doing some research to get an idea of what range of rates (assuming per-page rates or per-word rates) they are willing to pay. Early on in my career, I took tests and *then* talked rates. There were quite a few organizations I ended up not wanting to work with after I eventually found out how small their budgets were. I haven’t taken an editing test in years—potential clients accept me on the strength of my professional reputation or have me edit a small sample manuscript (e.g., a chapter) for pay before awarding me the entire project—but if I were to have to take a test now, I’d definitely get an idea of the budget before taking an unpaid test.

    Comment by Katharine O'Moore-Klopf — February 14, 2012 @ 11:17 am | Reply

    • Good advice, Katharine.

      BTW, I once took an editing test and didn’t hear back and figured they weren’t interested. One or two years later, I got a call saying they had a vet book (I’d expressed special interest in that because I keep sheep), and after I did that book, they became my main client.

      So not hearing back from a client doesn’t mean they didn’t like what you did on the test.

      Comment by Gretchen — February 14, 2012 @ 11:29 am | Reply

      • Exactly, Gretchen. Eons ago, I was one of those staff members who barely had any time available to grade editing tests. Not getting a call from a potential client does not equal failing the editing test. It usually just means that the staff members are short on time and likely to stick with the freelance editorial professionals they’re already familiar with, until an emergency forces their hand.

        Comment by Katharine O'Moore-Klopf — February 14, 2012 @ 11:58 am | Reply

  5. I think editing tests make a lot of sense. One person’s notion of good editing is another person’s idea of terrible editing. This is such a subjective field, and anyone can hang out their shingle (and, unfortunately, anyone does!). A test gives at least a sense of how someone approaches the work.

    I once applied for an in-house job and sat for a one-hour timed test. I was a little surprised at first: all work was done on paper, there was no dictionary available, and test-takers just noted what they would look up if they could and then kept going. But in the end, I think it was wise. It narrowed the field of candidates rapidly, and gave the hiring manager a reasonable (and roughly equal) basis for judging the candidates’ work in terms of pace, approach and “heaviness” of editing, style of querying, and so on. It also gave candidates an idea of what the work would be like. The test was the unedited version of an article they had already published.

    I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been part of the interviewing/hiring side (in various jobs and fields) and been truly surprised–not in a good way–at how a new hire turned out. Interviews, resumes, references, and recommendations may be traditional, but they have more weight than they really deserve, I think.

    Definitely a good reminder, Katharine. I always regret the waste of time when I’ve forgotten to ballpark the rate up front.

    Comment by annemoreau — February 14, 2012 @ 1:05 pm | Reply

  6. I’ve never had a problem with taking an editing or proofreading test, because I know it’s the only way a prospective client can be assured that I’m capable of doing what I say I can do. Far too many people nowadays (maybe always; who knows) claim to be editors and proofreaders who have never worked in publishing and don’t even know what a style manual is, much less how to apply it. Even published writing clips can be deceptive; the client has no way of knowing how much editing was done between ms. submission and the light of publication.

    I just limit the extent of a test – I ask for something that already has been published, and won’t do more than a certain few pages’ worth. I’ve passed most of the ones I’ve taken. For those that I didn’t, I don’t assume it means anything other than someone else did more or better. For writing tests, I expect to be paid. For editing or proofreading tests, I appreciate being paid but don’t expect it.

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — February 18, 2012 @ 3:59 pm | Reply

  7. “My belief was that an experienced editor would be capablof handling the work. ” LOL.

    Comment by CT3 — August 15, 2012 @ 10:50 pm | Reply

  8. I am about to take my very first editorial test in approximately 55 minutes. This post has been a big help in assuaging my fears about the possible outcome. Many thanks.

    Comment by John van der Luit-Drummond — July 24, 2013 @ 7:06 am | Reply


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