It's a two-way work sample. I see a sample of the writer's manuscript, and they see a sample of my editing work. Depending on several factors that I won't go into here, it may be a sample of developmental editing, of substantive editing, or of both.
What purposes does it serve?
It gives both the writer and me information we need to decide whether to enter into an editing relationship with one another. I guess that might sound a little strange, but here's what I mean:
1) It gives the writer the opportunity to see how I work and what I do. Does the writer like my communication style? Do I deliver on time? Is the feedback I provide clear, helpful and accurate? Do I provide constructive as well as positive feedback? Do I seem to really *get* what they're trying to do? Does the feedback reinforce (or perhaps reignite) the writer's excitement about their project?
2) It gives me the opportunity to see what it would be like to work with the writer. Do they communicate well? Do they deliver the sample on time for editing? What kind of feedback seems to be most effective for them? Do they make a prompt payment? Do we seem to be engaging as equals and treating each other with mutual respect and consideration? Is this a project I can get behind?
3) And, last but not least, we get to see the rate at which I edit their work (it's different for different types of writing and writing styles), and thus the sample edit provides the basis for an accurate estimate of how much it will cost to have me edit their project.
How much does the sample edit cost?
A sample edit costs $30 for roughly an hour's worth of work (though this rate may go up over time, in accordance with cost of living and my availability).
I recently had a prospective client ask why I don't charge my normal hourly rate for the sample edit. It's because I recognize that, at this point, the writer is taking a chance on me. He or she doesn't yet know what I can do, what the quality of my work is like, whether I'll be able to get behind his or her project. It doesn't seem fair to me to let the writer take on all the risk when I have something to gain as well, so I pay for part of the sample edit as a show of good faith. We're both gathering information so we can make an informed decision about whether to work together, and so we share the risk.
How long should the sample be?
That will depend on what kind of sample I'm doing, but it's usually somewhere around 10 pages. When I ask for the sample, I'll ask for a specific number of pages.
Do you always do the sample edit on the beginning of the piece of writing?
Normally I ask for pages from the very beginning of the book/essay/whatever it is. This is because the beginnings and the endings carry more weight, to my thinking, and therefore deserve more particular attention. However, if the beginning of the writing project is not representative of the rest - for example, if the the beginning has already been edited but later parts haven't been - then it is in our best interest that the sample come from a part of the project that is more representative of the whole so that I can give as accurate a quote as possible.
How should the ms be formatted?
Good question! ;*) I edit in Word using comments and track changes, so I need the sample emailed to me as a .doc. It should be double-spaced in 12pt Times New Roman or Courier font with 1" margins all around. Text alignment is up to the writer, but the norm for prose is aligned left.