An American Editor

January 13, 2014

Evaluating Editors

Last week our dishwasher died. It had served us well for 14 years but finally gave a last gasp, which meant it was time to buy a new one. But what do I know about dishwashers? Not much. I know what features I want and what I expect it to do, but among brands and models, I don’t know good from bad and really have no way to test them in advance of buying one and subsequently learning whether or not I made a good decision.

In the very olden days, filling this knowledge gap was difficult. The primary resource was anecdotal evidence from family, friends, neighbors, and advertising. If my cousin was ecstatic about her new dishwasher, then I would have likely looked at one from the same brand — even though her dishwasher was already 7 years old and the model was no longer available.

Today things are a bit different. The Internet has made it so. But even today much of the consumer’s decision making relies on anecdotal opinion, with the difference being the number of opinions that one can access. The opinion universe is nearly infinite.

Although I did look at comments about dishwashers, I rapidly found that they were not all that helpful. Some were much too general and broad, some were gripes about “defects” that I wouldn’t call defects, many were about models no longer available. In the end, I relied on my primary standby, Consumer Reports, which tested, reported on, and rated 228 models of dishwashers. We looked at the top 10 models and bought one of the top 4 models.

This shopping experience made me think of editing. I can find information from reliable organizations that test and evaluate both expensive and inexpensive appliances, but if I want to hire an editor, it is a crapshoot. In some countries and in some specialty areas, it is slightly better than a crapshoot because there are certifying organizations. However, the value of the certification lies in how well recognized that certification is among the consuming populace. I suspect that in many instances, the organizations are not well known outside the profession.

All of this brings me back to the complaint that I have made before about the lack of licensing standards for editors. Many, if not most, editors are generally opposed to any kind of national governing body that would test and license editors. They do not see the value of making the editorial profession akin to lawyering, accounting, therapy, doctoring, and even hairdressing; that is, minimum education standards followed by testing and licensing and, perhaps, even continuing education requirements. Such a scheme is viewed as just one more financial roadblock designed to curb individual freedom and prevent the marketplace from deciding (the idea being that cream will always rise).

Twenty-five years ago I thought similarly; today I think differently. The world has changed for editors. Thirty years ago, when I started in this profession, an American book publisher didn’t consider offshoring editorial work. Consequently, the pool of competitors was limited. It was further limited because there was a close working relationship between the in-house editor and the freelance editor; poor work didn’t slip by. The Internet and the internationalization of publishing has changed that relationship. The pool of editors is now global, not local, and in-house editors handle so many more projects than they did 30 years ago that they do not have the time to work closely with the freelance editor.

The close relationship between the in-house editor and the freelance editor allowed for an evaluation of the freelance editor’s work that no longer occurs. It even allowed for informal mentoring. Although the ease of entry to the editing profession hasn’t really changed (it was easy then and it is easy now), the rigorous evaluation of an editor that occurred then has, for the most part, gone by the wayside today.

The result is that the profession of editing now faces more challenges than it is capable of handling. First is the challenge of ensuring basic competency. Although the topic of another essay, it is worth noting that education in America is in great decline, with Kansas being at the forefront of that decline and the other states watching Kansas and itching to mimic it. The trouble in Kansas is that the Republican-led government is defunding education, having slashed public education funding to 16.5% below the 2008 funding level, and working to slash even more. The consequence will be that future editors will be drawn from a pool of inadequately educated people. If the slashing were limited to Kansas, it would only be Kansas-educated editors who would be disadvantaged. But with other states looking to mimic the Kansas approach, the inadequacy will be much wider spread. Licensing and education requirements to be an editor would not solve the problem but would help to minimize it by assuring a minimum competency.

The second challenge is ensuring the ability of competent editors to earn a living, or at least having the opportunity to do so. If our profession remains as libertarian as it currently is, and if the ease of entry — just hang out a shingle and call one’s self an editor — remains, the consequences will be that better qualified and more competent editors will leave the profession because it will be too difficult to compete economically, which will lead to a further degradation in quality of the editorial product.

The third challenge is changing the decision-to-hire-an-editor driver from price to quality. As long as the decision driver remains or is dominated by price, the highly skilled editor will be unable to compete. We see this now with authors who talk about not having the money to hire an editor or who are willing to pay no more than $200 to edit a 500-page manuscript — and then expect, if not outright demand, the “perfect” edit. Editing is like most crafts in that it is a hands-on skill. Although some aspects can be automated, the reading of a manuscript word by word cannot be. Paying $200 for editing a 500-page manuscript amounts to $8 an hour, assuming the manuscript can be read and edited at a pace of 20 pages an hour; at a pace of 10 pages an hour, the pay is $4 an hour. How long do you think it would be before price drove highly skilled editors into other professions?

The fourth challenge is objectively evaluating editors in a fashion that is universally understood by the consumers of editing. Of all the challenges — those identified above and those left unidentified — this is the most difficult to overcome. Why? Reasons include resistance on the part of editors who are semi-successful today; a lack of editors willing to step forward and accept the mantle of leadership in this task; the number of part-time editors for whom editing is a way to earn vacation money; and editors (freelance and in-house) who have yet to enter the profession who are not being taught the basic skills they need to identify good from poor editing.

If editors could be more objectively evaluated, editing might well return to the state of being a respected, skilled profession that attracts highly skilled and educated people and allows them to earn a middle class living. I think raising the profession in this manner could turn the decision driver from price to quality, which would benefit both editors and the consumers of editing. I also think one way to accomplish these goals is to have standards, education requirements, and licensing. What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. I agree. If editors are to be considered “professional,” they are going to have to have some kind of minimum standards by which the general populace can evaluate a person’s value (as it pertains to the editing process). In other professions we have CPA’s, RN’s, MD’s, and other acronyms to ensure standards for the profession in question. Why not editing? And although I am using my editing funds as a supplement to other earnings, I am not ready to work for $4 an hour. The question I have is how this certification process can be implemented.


    Comment by Michael Roberts — January 13, 2014 @ 7:13 am | Reply

  2. AE wrote: “If editors could be more objectively evaluated, editing might well return to the state of being a respected, skilled profession that attracts highly skilled and educated people and allows them to earn a middle class living. I think raising the profession in this manner could turn the decision driver from price to quality, which would benefit both editors and the consumers of editing. I also think one way to accomplish these goals is to have standards, education requirements, and licensing. What do you think?”

    I think it’s too late.

    And even if not, and we had a cadre of certified professionals who can prove their skills, there remains the problem of client expectation. What “quality” means to one publisher or indie author (or editor) is different from what it means to another, and the only way to demonstrate if one has what the client wants/needs is to show it via sample edit and discussion of parameters. Then the client must determine whether he/she/it can afford the work, or is willing to pay. A low percentage of editing jobs actually improve a published product’s earning capacity. Quality is more important in nonfiction than fiction, and rates will always reflect that.

    Getting hung up on “quality” can get in the way of making a living. Although I aspire to top tier (i.e., working on great books by great writers and doing a great job making them better, and earning great paychecks), the fact of life is that work comes in the door from many quarters, and in most cases the decree is to deal with its mechanical issues, not change the content to make it “better.” I am not paid to pass judgment on a work’s quality; I am paid to do the best I can with what I’ve got. Where possible, I’ll talk the client up a level, but so many times that’s not possible, so I must either dump the opportunity because I can’t provide “quality” or do a quality job with what the tools and materials at hand.

    Certification, I believe, will not change this. Ironically, I crave having ” standards, education requirements, and licensing” I can shoot for, the earning of which will validate me in others’ eyes. Gotta keep food on the table while waiting for this to happen, though, and in today’s world the quality piece is ephemeral and variable, and is driven by buyer demand.


    Comment by Carolyn — January 13, 2014 @ 7:35 am | Reply

  3. Doing the best you can with what you have is a big accomplishment!


    Comment by harrisfr — January 13, 2014 @ 8:10 am | Reply

  4. A quandry, Rich.

    Many certificate holders fail my editing tests, although not as often as non-certified. Journalists do the best on my tests.

    I didn’t have my Bachelor’s when I first started editing for students and writers in 1976, and I couldn’t have afforded the cost of schooling, testing, licensing, but I passed every proofreading and copyediting test sent by publishers. has many, many articles about the writer-editor relationship, types of editors, and how to select the best editor for a project. I post experienced, screened, and tested editors but, despite all that effort, most writers go with the lowest quote. Would all that effort and time/money investment on the part of the editor (training/credentials/license) be wasted if people ignore all that in favor of cheap?

    Several people have suggested to me that passing my test is a form of “credential.” I’d like your opinion about that.

    Lynda Lotman


    Comment by Lynda Lotman — January 13, 2014 @ 10:32 am | Reply

    • I left college for the workplace without a degree. When the time came to consider going back to school to upgrade my credentials, research showed that it would cost way more to invest in a degree than I could earn back over double the time period. Since triple the time has passed, I see that if I started then or now I would have to do it for love because it wouldn’t repay me in income. So the cost of schooling, testing, and licensing could well be greater than the reward.

      As for Lynda’s testing as a credential: It took me five years to build up to the creds that qualified me to even take a shot at that test, and I considered passing it to be a big statement about my professional skills. No publisher test ever offered the same satisfaction (although some were actually harder). However, I needed to pass those tests in order to get the experience that qualified me to take the BEA test.


      Comment by Carolyn — January 13, 2014 @ 11:23 am | Reply

    • Lynda, I’m not sure what you want my opinion on. If it is the value of your test, I’d say my opinion of the value of passing your test is the same as the value of passing my test — none outside whether the person meets our individual standards.


      Comment by americaneditor — January 13, 2014 @ 1:47 pm | Reply

  5. I totally support the idea of having a credentials process with an exam. There are precedents in Canada (Editors Association of Canada, and also in the US in one specialty area: the BELS Exam for editors in the life sciences (


    Comment by Kerrie Schurr — January 13, 2014 @ 10:59 am | Reply

  6. I agree there should be standards for editors. It seems like anyone can hang out a shingle and call themselves an editor, and I’m seeing more and more of it on the Internet. I can tell by looking at their websites that many of these people don’t have the requisite skills and knowledge. I feel like it diminishes my 30-plus years of hard-core editing experience. As a person who has also tested and hired editors, I see a lot of poor editors (I’d say 90% of the people I test don’t pass muster). I also think the horse is already out of barn as far as creating some kind of certification — it seems like a huge undertaking at this point.


    Comment by Diane Emory — January 13, 2014 @ 12:43 pm | Reply

  7. I agree with Rich. I don’t begrudge any of the newbies to the profession who are competing with me (and those like me with 20+ years of experience). What bothers me is that there is very little way for clients to tell the difference. I would jump at the chance to take a national certification test. The only one that even comes close to my specialties is the BELS exam, but that is not close enough. Even a general copyediting exam would work for me.

    I’ve taken several tests for clients in the course of my career (and given tests, too), and by far the most difficult was for a research institute. Out of 106 applicants that year, only five passed (yes, I passed). Then we had to take a second exam (which was shorter and was paid) before getting any live work. But I notice that this institute is having trouble finding editors, and I don’t even know if they give the exam any more.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — January 13, 2014 @ 3:13 pm | Reply

    • Teresa, you CAN take a national certification test. The Editors’ Association of Canada offers tests of excellence in structural editing, stylistic editing, copy editing, and proofreading. You can do as many or as few of the tests as you like, in accordance with the type of work you do. If you pass all four tests, you can call yourself a Certified Professional Editor and put CPE after your name. The tests are open to anyone from any country, as long as you can travel to one of the Canadian cities in which the tests are offered. You’ll find info at

      I’m all for certification. It’s good for editors, it’s good for clients, and it’s good for readers. Since earning my CPE, I’ve been able to earn $80 an hour on some projects.

      I spent 25 years hiring editors, and it was a miserable process. About 90 percent of applicants calling themselves editors failed the simple copy editing test I gave them. If I were hiring today, I would hire only editors with certifications, because I’d know they were competent.

      Yes, it does take a lot of time and effort and volunteer hours to build and run a certification program. It’s never too late. And it’s totally worth it.

      Anne Brennan, CPE
      Certification Steering Committee
      Editors’ Association of Canada


      Comment by Anne Brennan — January 13, 2014 @ 8:15 pm | Reply

      • Thanks, Anne. I’ll check that out. Do you know if many U.S. editors get this certification? Might be something worth asking on the various editing discussion lists I subscribe to as well.


        Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — January 14, 2014 @ 11:57 am | Reply

        • As far as I know, no one outside Canada has earned an EAC credential–yet. But it’s open to everyone. While many of the standards underlying the tests are common to editorial practices in other countries, the tests do require some familiarity with Canadian practices, resources, and issues. It’s not too hard to learn those, especially if you pick up a copy of _Editing Canadian English_ (

          The tests are based on _Professional Editorial Standards (2009)_ ( This document outlines everything an editor is expected to do in the course of structural editing, stylistic editing, copy editing, and proofreading. It also contains a section on the fundamentals of editing that are common to all areas of editing. Many editors I know direct clients to this document to explain the different types of editing and what to expect.

          I encourage everyone to become familiar with _Professional Editorial Standards (2009)_, no matter where they live. It’s an excellent resource. As the title suggests, it sets out the standards every professional editor should follow.


          Comment by Anne Brennan — January 14, 2014 @ 4:23 pm | Reply

          • I forgot to mention that you should have at least five years of full-time editing experience before attempting one of EAC’s certification tests. It’s important to have broad experience as well as in-depth knowledge of the skill set evaluated by a particular test. The certification tests cover the skills required to work in all media.

            The tests are hard. You need to score approximately 80% to pass. Many people tell us the act of simply preparing for these tests is the best professional development they’ve ever had.


            Comment by Anne Brennan — January 14, 2014 @ 4:29 pm

          • Is there a fee for testing?

            Lynda Lotman


            Comment by Lynda Lotman — January 14, 2014 @ 4:40 pm

  8. Licensing? No. Certification, sure. But I really, really, don’t like the idea of the government licensing the communications profession. To be honest, I’m not even sure it’s constitutional. Your challenges #1, #3, and #4 can be taken care of licensing. As for #2, it’s not the role of the government to ensure that everyone can make a living doing a particular task.


    Comment by Benjamin Lukoff (@lukobe) — January 13, 2014 @ 4:27 pm | Reply

    • Why would government licensing be unconstitutional? If you’ve ever gotten your hair cut at a barbershop or salon, you’ve seen the stylist’s license posted. Doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, CPAs, and other professionals must be licensed by states; electricians and plumbers by locality (we don’t have any requirement for those in my county, which is frankly a little scary!). Other professions and trades have various licensing and/or certification requirements.

      More to the point, I think, is that a license requirement for editors would be unenforceable. Voluntary certification would be the way to go, I think. It’s usually a benefit to editors, too, which is the incentive; for example, editors with BELS certification seem to get a lot of work and are able to charge good rates. (I “know” this only from anecdotal evidence.)

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — January 13, 2014 @ 5:30 pm | Reply

      • Government licensing the *communications profession* might be unconstitutional. The First Amendment.


        Comment by Benjamin Lukoff (@lukobe) — January 15, 2014 @ 2:59 pm | Reply

        • Don’t think the First Amendment has anything to do with licensing. FCC licenses TV and radio stations. Groups have to get permits from localities to have rallies and parades.

          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — January 15, 2014 @ 5:00 pm | Reply

  9. Here in Australia editors can opt to do a demanding accreditation exam. Having taken (and passed) the test myself, I know how challenging it is, and wouldn’t hesitate to hire an accredited editor ahead of one who wasn’t accredited. I also have a university qualification in editing and publishing, yet still feel the national exam is my strongest credential.

    More info on the system here if you’re interested.

    I work part time as an in-house editor and do some freelance work as well. All my freelance clients come to me via word of mouth recommendations, which also reduces the ‘crapshoot’ factor.

    Thanks for your blog!


    Comment by Karin — January 13, 2014 @ 5:26 pm | Reply

    • For clarification: Are we talking about certification for objective (proofreading) or subjective (copyediting) talent?
      My proofreading test is objective, but my copyediting test has a lot of wiggle room for style.
      My developmental editors may also call themselves copy editors, but they wouldn’t claim to be proofreaders.
      A one-size-fits all certification wouldn’t work.
      Lynda Lotman


      Comment by Lynda Lotman — January 13, 2014 @ 6:00 pm | Reply

      • I would definitely want to have separate tests for proofreading and copyediting. I do both, though more copyediting and substantive editing nowadays, but when I put on my proofreading hat, I apply a different, though related, skillset. Proofreaders really need to know when not to touch the copy and how to make the most minimal corrections that will do the job. Copyeditors need to know when to “do no harm,” and not mark up a manuscript just to make it “better” (which can be very subjective). I’ve evaluated tests where the applicant didn’t see the forest for the trees, that is, made all sorts of substantive changes but missed, say, inconsistent capitalization and hyphenation.


        Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — January 14, 2014 @ 11:55 am | Reply

        • That’s why the Editors’ Association of Canada has separate tests for copy editing and proofreading. And separate tests for stylistic editing and structural editing. They’re different skill sets.


          Comment by Anne Brennan — January 14, 2014 @ 4:32 pm | Reply

  10. As always, you make a lot of sense, Rich. I despair, though, of licensing or certification for editors making much difference in clients’ opinions of editors or in what they’re willing to pay for editing.

    I had a meeting earlier this week in which I was told that (a) the client wants curriculum that will be adopted nationwide, and (b) the client doesn’t see why I think it should take so long to edit that very same curriculum (which needs a developmental edit), because “It doesn’t have to be a Cadillac. It can just be a Chevy.” I’ve heard variations on this theme throughout my career.

    I am posting behind a fake name on this, because I don’t need to create any more tension with this client than already exists.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Spellcheck-Only Please — January 14, 2014 @ 11:22 am | Reply

    • It’s an education process, and it takes time. I feel your pain, Spellcheck-Only Please. I encourage you to direct clients like this to _Professional Editorial Standards (2009)_ (, to show them exactly what you’ll do to their manuscripts. You can download a PDF of the document from that website, or just send them to particular pages right on the site.

      Every editing association should have a set of standards like this. I know the Australians do. Check with your organization. If it doesn’t have a set, encourage them to create one!


      Comment by Anne Brennan — January 14, 2014 @ 4:38 pm | Reply

    • I don’t think you’ll be able to change what this client wants. I, too, have my Chevy clients, and I can choose to do one of three things: do the level of work they are asking and paying for, do more work but not get paid more, or turn down the work. I’ll take choice 1 or 3, but not 2. The only way to get Cadillac work and pay is to get clients who want that level of work and are willing to pay for it. I have some of those, also. Mostly, my work falls somewhere on a continuum between the two, as I suspect most editorial work does.

      At least your client is admitting that they want Chevy work. The bigger problem is the client who wants Cadillac work but is only willing to pay Chevy prices.


      Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — January 15, 2014 @ 5:32 pm | Reply

  11. […] editors are complaining about the standards in their industry, such as Richard Adin’s Evaluating Editors, and the comments to his article. This raises the question of why there should be this insistence […]


    Pingback by Lifting the Ladder | Mercia McMahon — January 18, 2014 @ 1:35 pm | Reply

  12. Licensing editors is not going to solve the problem of writers wanting to pay the lowest possible price for the work. I think the only ones who benefit from the licensing are the people who collect the fees. They will gradually lower the standards so that more people can pass the test, and eventually the test won’t even be necessary. You just go to the licensing board, pay your fee, and take your license. Hunting licenses are already that way, and hunting badly has larger consequences than poor comma placement.

    I do not have a problem walking away from a potential client who wants to pay less than a penny per word for a job. I consider those clients likely to be more trouble than they are worth on every scale. I imagine that they are offering these cheap prices because they do not understand what it is they would be getting for their money. If I have the opportunity to educate that potential client, then I will. If he is just stubbornly clinging to the idea that he can get it done cheaper somewhere else, then I agree with him and let him go.

    I won’t give Chevy work, even if that is what they are paying me for. If I am desperate enough to accept a job that pays peanuts, then I am still going to give my absolute best possible work. Anything less only invites me to have poor work habits that will be harder to break when I have better paying clients. I cannot understand how anybody can look at an error and say, “Oh, well, if you were paying me more, I would fix that for you” and then just leave it there. That error would bug me for the rest of my life.

    I do not want to become so calloused that I can justify deliberately giving less than my best.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by V — January 24, 2014 @ 10:51 am | Reply

  13. […] Adin has talked about a desire for licensing copyeditors (see Evaluating Editors) to help prove their worth. It’s an idea that intrigues me. There are existing programs that […]


    Pingback by The Practical Editor: What Does Professional Certification Look Like? | An American Editor — June 23, 2014 @ 4:00 am | Reply

  14. Hi, Lynda

    The BEA is a great idea. Is there something for journal editors as well?


    Comment by Vivek — June 24, 2014 @ 12:48 am | Reply

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