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Laura Bontje

The Pros and Cons of Sample Edits

Illustration of hands over an open lined notebook, correcting text errors with a red pen.
Illustration of hands over an open lined notebook, correcting text errors with a red pen.
Copyright: dvolkovkir1980

If you asked 10 editors how they approach sample edits, you’d probably get 10 different answers. Some editors charge for sample edits, some offer samples for free and some don’t do sample edits at all. Some editors begin on page one, and others edit an excerpt from the middle.

So if you’re a new freelancer, how do you decide which approach is right for you?

Here are some of the reasons that I offer free sample edits — and the considerations that could make me change my mind someday.

The pros of sample edits

Sample edits can prove your value

Hiring an editor can be nerve-racking, especially for new authors. What does an editor do? Are they waiting, red pen in hand, to run roughshod over the author’s vision? Is it possible that the manuscript is already perfect as it is?

Then there’s the sticker shock. Why hire the more expensive editor when this other site has people offering to edit a novel in 24 hours for $50? A sample edit is your chance to demonstrate the value of investing in professional editing.

For me, sample edits lead to conversions. Prospective clients who received a sample edit along with their quote have hired me far more often than those who saw the fee first. If I someday see steady conversions from a quote alone, I might reconsider my policy on sample edits.

It’s important to find the right fit

Sample edits show the prospective client what you have to offer — not only your editorial skills, but also your communication style in queries and emails (or phone calls, if that’s part of your practice). If the author loves your work, great! You’ve gained a client. If not, then you and the author can both move on. The right editor is out there for each writer.

Editing is invisible

Sometimes authors are told by peers to assess editors by looking at previews of their clients’ books. The problem with that? It’s impossible to see an editor’s work from the finished product alone.

If a book is tightly plotted with beautiful prose and not a misplaced comma in sight, that might be evidence of excellent editing at each stage of the process. Or it might have been a manuscript that was always strong and needed only a light editorial polish.

Likewise, a book riddled with plot holes or errors could be a sign of an inexpert editor. Or it might have been thoughtfully and professionally edited, only to have the author reject many of the edits. It happens — especially in self-publishing, where the author is the sole arbiter of editorial decisions. (That’s not to say it’s the norm: I work with many indie authors who are committed to doing the very best for their books!)

In the end, the only way to see an editor’s work is to see an editor’s work.

The cons of sample edits

They’re time-consuming

Whether you charge for them or not, sample edits take time. For some editors, it’s matter of principle: they do not work on spec. You might decide that your time is best spent on existing clients’ manuscripts and the ongoing work of building your business.

There are other ways to show your skills

Content marketing (for example, writing blog posts or creating videos) is an efficient way to share your expertise and your editorial viewpoint. Once the content is posted, there’s no limit to how many authors can learn from it — all while you remain free to work on your existing projects.

This even works on a smaller scale. When I answer an author’s question on social media, I’m helping that author with their specific situation, but I’m also providing guidance for anyone else who may read that thread. I’ve gained a number of clients because they read my replies to someone else in a writing group — sometimes months after the fact!

You don’t know what you don’t know

An author may not be equipped to assess the quality of a sample edit. Imagine three sample copy edits to a sentence: Editor 1 makes no changes, Editor 2 adds a comma and Editor 3 recasts.

Did Editor 1 overlook something, or did Editor 2 introduce an error? Perhaps the style guide leaves room for editorial discretion! Did Editor 3 find the best way to correct a problem, or did they overstep the scope of a copy edit? When authors compare sample edits, their assumptions about what’s correct can sway their view of each editor’s work.

Finding the right system

The beauty of freelancing is that you can set up your business in the way that works best for you at any given time.

Where do you stand on sample edits?


Previous post from Laura Bontje: Editing Picture Books without the Pictures

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6 Comments on “The Pros and Cons of Sample Edits”

  • Andrew Wetmore


    I almost always offer a sample edit, and am pretty verbose with comments explaining my edits. If I am going to work with this person for months, I want to start with them knowing what they are getting into. I also want the client and me to assess whether we are compatible based not on promises, but on an actual, if limited, editorial transaction.

    • I’m an edit-explainer too! Many of the authors I work with appreciate that, but one or two have asked for queries to be kept only to those that require a response. The sample edit was a great way for them to see my usual style and ask if I could make adjustments before we got to work.

  • Thanks for this, Laura. I’m a firm believer in the value of sample edits. I try to make it “easy” on the prospective client by asking them to send me only 1,000 words, and from somewhere in the middle of the book. I then edit that exactly as I would edit the full manuscript: Track Changes on, many comments in the margin, and so on. I also supply them with an overall comment (a teeny version of what would become what some call the “editorial letter” if the writer chose to be my client). For example, in that, I might point out that, say, the writing overall is good, but there’s a tendency to use verbal clichés. Or anything else that stands out. Sometimes I even send a style sheet, so that they have an idea what this deliverable mentioned in the contract actually will look like.

    I know there are some editors who also time how long it takes them to do the sample edit, and then do the math with their hourly rate and come up with a quote. I never do that. It’s not perfect, and it tends generally to make me underbid, but I tend make a call on the rate based on my experience, and what I think the writer (any writer!) could tolerate. As an example: if it’s a 60,000-word novel, my rule might be that I will charge between $1,500 and $2,000 to edit that. If the writing is bad, I tend toward the latter figure; if good, toward the former. And I always guarantee the fee of course. If it happens that that 1,000-word sample was the only well-done passage in the novel, then that’s my bad, and I will “eat” the expense of the extra time.

    • Thanks for sharing your process! It’s so interesting to see how everyone approaches assessing a manuscript. I usually do my samples from the start of the text unless I feel there aren’t enough representative scenarios to address, but I always ask for the full manuscript so I can glance through and run a few red-flag keyword checks.

      I’m with you on the timing: I know it works well for other people, but timing a sample edit has never been as helpful for me. Instead, I track overall editing time and equivalent hourly rate (I charge a flat project fee, but I compare it against hours worked for my own tracking purposes) for each project in a spreadsheet divided by type of edit. That way I have a sense of overall trends, but I can also use it for comparisons: if some of the editorial needs of the manuscript remind me of something else I’ve worked on, I can go back and see how long THAT project took me and move my quote up or down in my fee range accordingly. Like you, if I underbid, I absorb the loss and learn from it for the next time. So far, it’s been a fairly effective system!

  • Thanks, Laura, for a well-written summary of the issues. Like you, I prefer to offer a sample edit and do so for the reaons you outline. I also find that doing a sample edit gives me a good idea of how much time will be required. As a result I can offer a quote that’s fair to the client and to myself.

    • “Fair to the client and to myself”—a great metric for so many things editing-related!

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