More about editorial tests

Until 2014, upgrading your SfEP membership required proof of training and experience, plus references. This worked well for many people, but not all; you might be experienced and still meet insuperable obstacles. What if your client has no idea what good editing looks like? Their reference will not prove your competence and nor will that experience. What if your proposed referee stops replying to emails, moves to a remote island, retires or dies? What if company policy forbids staff to write references? Again you cannot prove your competence. With the passage of time and staff, it can be impossible to prove the extent of in-house or private training. Finally, some people’s careers are unconventional – mine has been – but that need not be a bar. It should be possible for any competent proofreader or copy-editor to prove their competence.

What sort of test?

What proves your competence is doing a good job for someone who knows good editing when they see it. Some publishers check this by setting a test, but there is usually more than one way of resolving an editorial problem, so it is difficult to make such tests objective, and marking them is labour-intensive and thus expensive. I looked at automatic marking of free text, and found there is no software available off the shelf because it is hideously difficult to do, though I have commissioned a program that may eventually allow us to mark edited text in just this way. 

For the basic test, the solution was multiple choice. What should it cover? Not all SfEP members copy-edit, so it would not be fair to set a basic test that required knowledge of copy-editing. But all our members should be able to proofread (even if their skills are rusty or they never do it at all), so the test is based on what a good proofreader should know or be able to deal with. Proofreading is much more limited than copy-editing, but it is not a lesser skill nor essentially different; it is editing in miniature. It is wrestling with text, but wrestling in a broom cupboard.

For the moment, because it takes so much work to create tests and because of the difficulty in finding and modifying suitable software for the advanced test, only the basic test is available. I plan to write and pilot an advanced test in 2016. Our editorial tests are only for members.

What is ‘competence’?

The editorial tests are in two parts: professional practice (including business practice and ethics) and editorial skills and knowledge – you need to have above-average English, accuracy and observation, good judgement of tone, balance and context, and the ability to follow instructions, and you should know what a proofreader does, what other editorial professionals do, the terms and symbols in use, and some general knowledge. This last is hard to define, but it matters; we should know there is something wrong if we read of ‘a man weighing 2kg’ taking ‘a train south from Brighton’ pulled by ‘Thomas the Tanker Engine’.

The tests have to balance the needs of the Society, the individual member and potential clients. Our members may specialise in medical journals, mediaeval mysteries or marketing material; do we expect them to know anything else? Clients will assume they are all competent editorial professionals who can do a good job on most material. And clients will assume that an editorial test shows all-round competence; otherwise, what’s the point of it? We want to feel confident that our fellow members will sustain, even raise, the Society’s reputation, rather than damage it. So SfEP can’t appear to validate the editorial skills of someone with a very narrow skill set. 

Is the test fair? 

The tests are hard, but fair. They are based on a published syllabus, which in turn is based on respected published sources and a range of typical British practice, and the time allowed is generous. Two versions of the basic test were piloted with members who had recently upgraded from the starting grade; the majority passed, some failed, but 70% of them completed it within 45 minutes. Council agreed to allow an hour; I cut one question, revised most of the others and improved the presentation. Three volunteers used a Mac; the rest used Windows. One took the test on a laptop; one used an iPad mini and found this better than on a mainframe.

The thinking behind the syllabus is that members should have good knowledge or awareness of professional ethics, business practice and editorial terms, skills and practices, even if some parts are unfamiliar or rusty. We don’t want members who are offered a job to reply ‘I can’t do tables’ or ‘I don’t do arithmetic’ or ‘I’ve assumed all the accents are right’. That makes membership a hollow claim. It’s often more about awareness than knowledge. Members should recognise almost all Greek letters as Greek letters, but may be able to name only a few: pi, lambda, cap. delta, cap. omega. I’d expect members to be aware that a mile is longer than a kilometre, but not necessarily to know that 1 km is 0.623 of a mile or be able to do conversions in their head. 

We are not trying to make upgrading impossible, just hard enough to mean something. 

What does the basic test cover? 

There are ten questions on the code of practice, followed by questions covering publishing and electronic terminology, accents and other special sorts, BS5261 marks, sequences in publishing and prelims, reference sources, acceptable styles, minimal editing and correcting a table. All questions are based on typical British publishing styles.

There are no trick questions, though it is important to follow the instructions and read the question itself. The answers are simple (if you know them!) but, as in real life, some answers are not obvious whereas others are very obvious. This is a basic test and we need to be sure that people really do know what an RTF file is, how number spans can be elided in the UK, what citation systems are widely used and the typical sequence in publishing or in prelims. 

I find that members assume their own experience and practice are typical, even universal, but practices (even terms) vary widely. If someone is SfEP-tested, they should be aware of the full range of knowledge and practice that a generalist might be expected to cope with. For example, a member might say ‘My clients don’t use BS5261 symbols, so why test them?’ Because this is basic knowledge that other clients will assume all our members have. Similarly, the tests include obsolete marks, which you will need to interpret when you meet them. If you plan to take the test, do read through the syllabus first, check what you know, and study or revise whatever you are not sure of.

How does it work?

The tests are hidden. You are sent a link allowing you to take the test once within a set period. It takes you to a landing page with information and instructions. When you are ready, you type in your membership number and click Next; the test opens and the clock starts ticking. 

You answer the questions on screen on your own device; the possible score is shown for each question and a clock shows how much time you have left. You cannot pause the clock, and the one-hour time limit means there is not much time to look things up; it is genuinely a test of what you know and can do. Nor may you consult anyone, though you can go back to check or change your answers. If you want to finish, or the clock stops, you click Next to see your score, which is sent automatically to the test administrator. After that you can see, page by page, what you got right and wrong. The pass mark is 75% for the basic test, 80% for the advanced test. 

We did consider charging a fee to take the editorial test – most professional associations do. But then we realised this would have the effect of penalising competent people who simply had not found an acceptable referee or gained enough paid experience, two groups that the new upgrade process is designed to help. Since there is a fee for an upgrade application, we felt that should pay for the cost of administering the test. If you fail, or just want to get a higher mark, you can retake the test – once only until we have more spare tests – for a fee.

Why take the test?

We brought in these tests in response to requests from members who wanted to upgrade but had difficulty in proving the worth of their training and/or experience. They will need to read the syllabus and do some revision, but the test should make upgrading fairly straightforward. It gains 8 to 12 points for the candidate, depending on their score. 

Anyone in SfEP can take the basic test free of charge and get an objective measure of their ability. Some people call themselves proofreaders because they can spell and spot a split infinitive, and not much more. Pass this editorial test, and you have a strong selling point: a certificate proving your basic editorial competence in professional practice, skills and knowledge, based on a wide-ranging syllabus, objectively tested against a high pass mark. 


Gerard M-F Hill,
mentoring and tests director
November 2015