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Testing Copyeditors: Problem Editing Tests

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We’ve talked about editing tests before in this space, and many professional editors are familiar with them to some degree. But can you spot a scam test when you see one? Can you identify an undesirable work situation from the test itself?

I asked members of the Editors’ Association of Earth’s Backroom (now the Editor’s Backroom) to share some of their biggest red flags concerning editing tests. Here’s what I found.

Spotting a Scam

It’s one of the first things about editing tests that freelancers hear: Don’t edit an entire chapter (or other relevant section) for free as an editing test. It’s a scam.

By claiming an edit is “just a test,” some people try to trick editors into working for free. Or they break up longer manuscripts among several editors to have each section edited as a test—all without compensation. You perform the edit, send the test back, and never hear back.

Many editors have experience with such “tests,” including editor and Great Courses instructor Molly McCowan. McCowan had a packager use this ploy on her when she was just starting out. When it became clear what was happening, she contacted the university press where the test content came from. The press was unaware this was going on and it was clearly against its policy. The likely scenario? The packager was trying to get projects edited under budget.

Some other red flags that could indicate a scam, courtesy of Ruth Thaler-Carter:

  • The email address and sender name don’t match.
  • The sender isn’t identifiable.
  • The request appears to have gone to multiple recipients.
  • The sender has attached a document even though an agreement isn’t in place yet.
  • The sender doesn’t say how they found you.
  • The request is very vague.

While one or even two of these items might not be enough to conclude the test is a scam, more than a couple indicate a problem. And you should never open a file you weren’t expecting from someone you don’t know, as macros in documents can sometimes hide malware.

If you spot only one or two items from the list, be cautious. Ask questions and try to determine if the offer is legit.

Identifying Problem Work Situations

Not every red flag means the test is a scam. Some can be clues that the working relationship with the company or client won’t be an easy one.

Zoë Beery reported in the Columbia Journalism Review about a trend that’s becoming frighteningly common, at least among journalists: tests that take an average of 20 hours, all unpaid. That seems unreasonable to me. The hiring agent wants an example of the editor’s skills, as well as a suggested headline and search engine optimization elements, but a brief edit (500-1000 words) would give them roughly the same information far quicker.

Beery doesn’t claim that any of the examples she found were intentional attempts at stealing ideas or not paying for work. However, if a potential employer has such an onerous test and isn’t paying you for it, what would it be like to work for the company? Would it continue to have impossible standards? Would it pay you for 40 hours and expect you to work 80?

If the company offers to pay you, especially if they intend to use your work, that’s a different story. You’re receiving compensation for your time. It’s not so much as a test as a trial run—something beneficial for both parties.

Another red flag is when you’re asked to pay to take a test. That’s right: you don’t get paid to take the test, but you pay for the privilege of being considered for a position. This could indicate that the company is looking to make a profit wherever they can, and it’s not afraid to make it off its workers and potential workers.

Hiring an employee or a freelancer is an investment of time and money. How well will a company invest in you later if it’s not willing to invest in finding the right person now?

One final red flag: the sender won’t answer basic questions. Says Robinson Prize–winning editor Sarah Grey, “I once asked a test-sender whether I should edit for US or UK English and they replied, ‘I can’t tell you that; it’s part of the test!’ Clients should be looking for editors’ ability to ask the appropriate questions before editing.”

Was this client unaware of how editing works, or how to manage an editor? Their response certainly seems to suggest that—and that the situation could become one where nothing you do is right because the client doesn’t know what’s reasonable.

It’s not unreasonable to spend an hour or two demonstrating your editing skills. Editing done well is invisible in published works, and sharing edits you’ve done for others is questionable at best. But scams, unethical practices, and just plain unreasonable requests are out there. Use your critical thinking skills and stay aware.

Originally published on March 9, 2018, on

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