Is asking editors for free samples a good or bad idea? Most of the time, it’s a bad one, for several good reasons.
For one thing, it can start your relationship off on a sour note. The truly qualified editors, especially those who do developmental editing (also called “content editing”), are typically swamped with work. They have wait lists of authors needing their attention. These wordsmiths don’t have time to do free samples because doing a thorough sample edit takes at least an hour—time they must spend helping the clients they already have promised their attention to.
Besides, you don’t need a sample edit to determine if someone is right for your book. It’s easy to spot a qualified editor based on their reputation. Examine their “About” page for their editing credentials. Have they worked in a publishing house? As a senior developmental editor or as a junior copy editor? Or are they a self-styled editor? (For the distinctions between these, see Choosing an Editor.) Read their testimonials. Are they from real people or from “Jane S.” and “Jared N.”? Is the editor’s website well-written and well-organized or does it have typos and clunky-sounding sentences? Does the person have a wait list of three months or are they desperately looking for clients? Clues like this tell you everything. A sample edit is not necessary if you are considering a competent editor. Everything about that person will scream quality.
Here’s another reason not to ask for a free sample: good editors may feel a bit insulted. “After all,” they may wonder, “isn’t my reputation enough for this author? Does she really expect me to spend an hour or two working for free to prove myself?” When you’re hoping to persuade an editor to take you on, it’s best not to start out with one strike against you.
And here’s another piece of advice: make sure your manuscript is the best you can make it before you send it in for an editor’s consideration. Recently I received a nonfiction manuscript from a writer who blithely described the document as “cobbled together.” Indeed it was. It looked like he had randomly thrown ideas down on paper with zero attempt at organization, logical progression, or even minimal revision. It gave the impression that this author wasn’t serious, that he expected an editor to come in, read his mind, and rewrite the manuscript for him.
When I told him the manuscript was not yet in a shape ready for professional editing, he was offended. Interestingly, this same author had asked me to “do a free sample edit of chapters two through four.” Three free chapters—no kidding!
Later he came back and said he really was committed to doing the work and was headed back to the drawing board. That earned him my respect, and I will help with a consult in the future when the manuscript is more readable.
The point I’m making is: don’t think an editor is going to fix the stuff you know is wrong but don’t want to make the effort to fix yourself. Editors aren’t here to “mop up.” We’re here for the serious authors, to help them perfect their very best efforts. The skill level doesn’t matter. What matters is the commitment.
If, after reading this, you still feel you need a sample edit before deciding if an editor is right for your book, I suggest you courteously offer to pay them for their time. Do yourself a favor and don’t ask for free sample edits—at least (chuckle) not three chapters’ worth!
Jessi Rita Hoffman … book editing by an industry professional