Scene: You hired an editor for your project and now you’re reviewing their work. It looks good. You can send it off to your design. Wait a sec. You look closer. Uh-oh. Is that … a mistake?
Cue the post-edit panic.
It’s tempting to think that hiring an editor to review your manuscript means the manuscript will then be perfect. It will be free of errors, and the writing will sing on the page.
Certainly any error found in the manuscript or layout or, worse, in the final product is unsettling. We want our projects to be perfect. However, no editing job can be perfect.
In this Quick Guide, we’ll first look at why an edit can’t be perfect. Then we’ll talk about how to review the remaining errors in your manuscript.
Why Editing Can’t Be Perfect
The first hurdle to perfect copy is the subjective nature of writing. What is an error? A missing word or an extra word in a sentence is definitely an error.
But what about a grammatical, but awkward-sounding sentence like this one?
Universal access to the technology that people need to better themselves, their communities, and the world is vital to opening the doors to a more prosperous life.
While many editors would edit this sentence to be more readable, some might leave it because it suits the voice of the manuscript. Or because the manuscript needs deeper work elsewhere and they’re trying to stay in budget and on schedule. Or because their professional opinion is that this sentence is fine as it. After all, it is grammatical.
Another reason editing can’t be perfect is the simple fact that editors are as human as writers and designers and every other person on our planet. Even though we’re trained and practiced at finding errors, we do miss them. And we’ll miss more of them when there are a lot of errors in the manuscript. Catching more errors might mean taking another pass through the document, which could mean more time and more expense. A good editor keeps your timeline and budget in mind when trying to make the manuscript the best it can be.
Errors as a Barrier to Understanding
So how many errors should an editor find? The Charter Institute of Editing and Proofreading, of which I’m an Advanced Professional Member, states:
It is important that [copyeditors] work to a high standard. Some people will assert that copyeditors should catch a certain percentage of errors, but we don’t believe this is helpful – because of the subjective nature of errors, and also because the copyeditor will be working within other constraints. Excellent work depends not only on the skill of the copyeditor but on the budget and schedule being adequate for the job.
Rather than using percentages to express an acceptable (or unacceptable) error rate, it’s better to think in terms of the copyeditor making the text fit for purpose within the limits of their brief. There should be consistency and clarity, and no barriers to the reader understanding the meaning of the text.
While calculating the number of errors isn’t always helpful, it can sometimes give you a sense of scope and the possible impact of these errors would have had if they hadn’t been caught before publication.
A 95% correction rate is often given as an excellent error-correction rate. In other words, the editor finds 95% of the known errors in the manuscript.
What does that mean? Let’s say you submit a manuscript of 100,000 words for copyediting. Your copyeditor makes 25,000 corrections using Word’s Track Changes. That includes moving or changing words, correcting punctuation, capitalizing headers according to your style, correcting spelling, and more.
It won’t include deleting extra spaces, adding or removing spaces around dashes, turning straight quotes into curly quotes, and other changes editors typically make with Track Changes off (“silently”). We make these changes silently because you really don’t want to have to see, let alone review, all those changes.
If those 25,000 changes are 95% of all errors, that leaves 1,316 errors!
Is 95% realistic? It can be. Here’s a recent project Right Touch Editing completed:
- Manuscript length (words): 88,287
- Corrections made: 2,055
- Errors caught later: 22
- Error-correction rate: 99%
Once you’ve caught the errors, you of course want to correct them if you can. But does it mean that the editor did a poor job?
Let’s look at whether the errors will create a barrier to understanding.
Let’s talk about how Right Touch Editing can help me.
The Effect of Individual Errors
Some errors will be more serious than others. Misstating a number as being in the millions instead of the hundreds is one—and could prevent the reader from properly understanding the intended meaning. It will definitely be a problem in a contract, for example.
Other errors may cause some readers to momentarily pause, while other readers will sail on by, especially if there are only one or two instances in something as long as, say, 50,000 words (slightly longer than a novella). A missing space between two words falls in that category, as does a dangling participle, especially one in which the meaning is still clear.
And then there are errors that only a trained professional or the author themselves would notice. Serial commas and the difference (or imagined difference—truly, editors argue about these things) between some word pairs, such as aggravate and irritate, are examples of this.
The Effect of the Errors Combined
Even if the errors are small, they can add up and become easily noticeable to readers, just as enough drops of food coloring added to a glass of water will eventually produce a noticeable change. At this points some readers will struggle to understand the text.
This is where looking at the number and severity of the errors can help. The 95% rate is used because many, many trained publishing professionals have determined that the text is still readable and understandable with 5% of errors remaining.
To determine whether the remaining errors meet that criteria, you’re going to have to list all the errors and work with your editor to review each one.
Couldn’t you just hire another editor to review the manuscript?
You could, but keep in mind the subjectivity errors. No two editors edit the same document the same way. We have styles, just like writers do. We have differences of opinion (see aggravate above). And what one editor will be attuned to finding, another might not be. It’s not as severe as asking two writers to write on the same topic, but it’s related.
Talking with your editor will also reveal when they intentionally left something that is now being categorized as an error. You’ll also want to know how the editor approached the edit in regards to time and budget constraints. While ideally this is discussed at the beginning of the project, it’s sometimes overlooked. Your editor may have taken a very deliberate approach to meet the project brief.
Life After Errors
Once you and your editor have reviewed all your concerns, you can determine whether and how to make corrections. If you’re in the proofreading stage, your designer can simply make the changes.
If you’ve published the work, it may still be easy to make the corrections. Web publishing, for example, is very forgiving. An ebook may also be fairly easy to update and re-upload. Print could be more complicated. Consult your designer or publisher on the best approach.
What if readers write in to tell you of errors? Thank them for taking the time to share that with you and let them know how you plan to make corrections. Most readers just want to be helpful. As for the trolls? You know the rule: don’t feed them!
Rest assured that every published work has at least one error lurking in it somewhere. Publications are created by humans, and mistakes are part of our humanity.
How we address mistakes is what matters.