When editors make (or miss) mistakes . . .

A sign with the text "To edit is human"

Editors make mistakes? What? How dare I go on record to state such a thing! Right off, let’s get one thing clear: editorial errors are inevitable. If that surprises you, it shouldn’t—we’re only human, after all (I know that’s hard to believe). While many editors are perfectionists, most of us also know perfection is impossible to achieve. Let me tell you from firsthand experience that the quest for perfection in a world where perfection doesn’t exist is an issue that causes many of us a great deal of anguish and even sleepless nights. It’s one of the hazards of the job.

Can a book be error free?

In the world of book publishing, it’s often said that no book is error free; that if you look hard enough, you can find an error in every book ever published. While I’m not sure that’s true—particularly of older books published when budgets for editing and proofreading were higher than they are today—it’s probably true for a good number of books published today, even those from big publishing houses. I recall around 2011 reading legendary Canadian author Alice Munro’s collection of short stories Too Much Happiness and finding it so fraught with egregious errors (a character whose name was alternately spelled Klara and Clara, a duplicate sentence, missing periods, among others) that I wrote to the publisher, McClelland & Stewart, to vent my dismay. Many of my colleagues have had similar experiences. But am I a hypocrite when I write to a publisher to complain and report errors other editors have made or missed?

I’d venture it’s a rare editor among us who knows every rule and guideline of grammar inside and out, or knows everything they don’t know (enough to know to look it up), or knows each time it’s okay to break those rules and guidelines. And it’s safe to say there’s no human on earth who doesn’t make a typo from time to time. Moreover, in many scenarios involving the written word, who’s to say what constitutes an error and what is the author’s personal style? The vast majority of editing tasks involve not correcting outright errors but making judgment calls, deciding on issues of style and usage rather than following hard-and-fast rules, and shaping prose that’s already grammatically correct but perhaps a bit stilted into something more concise, pleasing, and polished.

Editors as “grammar Nazis”

Despite all this, editors can be pretty opinionated on the subject of other editors’ errors and usage choices. I used to think editor errors were the elephant in the editorial suite, but in several of my editors’ discussion groups recently, some rather intense discussions focused on mistakes in other editors’ writing and whether they should be corrected.

Editors sometimes have a reputation of being grammar sticklers—it’s probably the biggest editor stereotype. And while we dislike being called grammar Nazis, the “stickler” tag often can’t be denied. We wouldn’t be editors if we didn’t have an almost innate compulsion to fix grammar and other writing infelicities when we see them. In fact, I might even go so far as to say some of us seem to be born that way.

For me, correcting mistakes in English grammar and usage has been almost innate since I was a child. In my earliest correction memory, I am standing beside my mother at the library checkout, my nose barely reaching the counter. Only about six years old, I precociously interrupt my mother’s conversation with the librarian by correcting her pronunciation of a word. While I don’t recall the word, I do remember my mom’s embarrassment and how she reprimanded me afterward. Apparently, however, the reprimand did little good. I continued to obnoxiously correct people’s grammar and pronunciation, and in high school, more productively, I helped my friends with their English and lit assignments. I was a natural-born editor, albeit one who needed to learn some manners.

But no amount of editorial righteousness exempts me or any editor from making occasional mistakes ourselves. And as I eventually learned, being an editor doesn’t give me carte blanche to correct anyone’s errors, anywhere, in any situation. People—writers, non-writers, and even other editors—are inordinately sensitive to having their English usage criticized. So under what circumstances should editors point out other writers’ and editors’ errors?

Mistakes in casual writing on social media

In addition to having about 300 editor and writer friends on Facebook, I belong to closed FB groups comprising almost 10,000 editors, and among us the “thou shalt not correct” etiquette is widely understood. On Facebook, the editing hat is off, for the most part. It’s a casual medium, people are thinking and typing in haste, and there’s that cursed autocorrect—all those things mean we should overlook typos and awkward grammatical structures among our colleagues.

But what if an otherwise careful editor consistently makes the same mistake, indicating a true gap in her knowledge? Shouldn’t we try to help? Wouldn’t most editors be grateful to be corrected and learn something new? I like to think so—I know I would—but by no means would I point out the error publicly. I might send the editor a private message, a tactful one, and hope she’d understand the spirit in which the correction was given. My thinking is that I’m doing her a favour so she doesn’t make the same mistake with a paying client. I’d expect the same in return. Still, I can recall doing this only once or twice in my ten years on Facebook.

Making judgments

Here another issue raises its head. As an editor, do I form opinions and pass judgment on errors I see on Facebook—despite the fact that I sometimes make them myself? Certainly I don’t judge my non-editor friends’ mistakes, and among my editor friends, I can easily overlook occasional errors, as I hope others do with mine. But if an editor regularly makes multiple careless errors, unfortunately, yes, I do tend to silently judge. Over time, I’m going to form a less than stellar opinion of an editor whose writing on Facebook is consistently careless or of poor quality. I can’t help but wonder if perhaps that carelessness might transfer over to the editor’s professional work; thus, if I have work to refer, I’ll be much more likely to choose an editor who appears to care about his or her professional reputation, even on Facebook. But in general, if there’s any place to be forgiving over editor errors, it’s on most social media. LinkedIn, where professionalism is more important, may be the exception.

So if an occasional error slips through here and there among my colleagues, I’ll overlook it. But I’m of the mind that a professional editor should be careful of his or her writing in every medium because one never knows where one’s next job is going to come from. I’ve landed several jobs either directly or indirectly from my connections on Facebook, and in part I like to think that’s because I’m careful to avoid (or correct) errors in my posts there.

Email and texting errors

Who doesn’t make mistakes in emails? Emails often cross hazy lines between casual and formal, and the degree of assiduity applied should be proportionate to the purpose. For example, if an editor is writing to another editor or client he or she doesn’t know well—perhaps it’s regarding potential work—the email should be carefully written. If an editor is writing casually to another editor who’s also a friend or to a long-time client, a mistake here and there isn’t that important.

And then there’s texting. Does anyone care about errors in text messages anymore? Autocorrect, ironically, means potentially more errors and corrections than ever, so it’s generally understood that errors are overlooked with this medium.

Mistakes in more formal writing: blog posts, résumés, websites

It’s my view that editors should be held to exacting standards in their blog posts, résumés, and websites. This type of writing is where editors showcase their skills to the world, and it should be as devoid of careless errors as possible. That said, I’m the first to admit that again, it’s nearly impossible to avoid all of the errors all of the time in these forms of writing. My blog posts are carefully researched and written. However, despite numerous passes of copy editing and proofreading after I’ve uploaded my post to my website, I seem to end up with at least one mistake in every article (go ahead—find an error in this one if you can!). Fortunately, I have so many editor friends that invariably one of my colleagues catches it and points it out to me—something for which I’m eminently grateful.

A recent post in one of my editors’ groups concerned an editor résumé that contained a big error. In an otherwise clean and carefully polished résumé, the applicant had left an unfortunate placeholder that read, “Duties included blah and blah and blah.” While the candidate didn’t get an interview for other reasons, the employer at first wasn’t sure whether to point out the error. Eventually she decided it would be in the candidate’s best interest to do so, and she did it in a separate email, editor to editor rather than prospective employer to applicant. I heartily agree. Although she had no obligation to do so, in a case like this, it’s kind and considerate to help an editor along in this way. But what if the résumé had been fraught with other, sloppy errors? Depending on other factors, I might still write a tactful note to the applicant if I thought it might help them with their career aspirations.

Oops! Editor mistakes do happen.
Oops! Editor mistakes do happen.

Mistakes in our professional work

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts and our tendencies toward perfectionism, editors do make occasional mistakes in our professional work. Existing errors can be missed due to a gap in the editor’s knowledge or by sheer oversight, or new errors can be introduced by accident. Are such mistakes forgivable, especially if they end up in a published work? One figure I’ve heard in editing circles is that a 5% error rate for editors is acceptable. That means if there are 1,000 errors in a full-length manuscript, it’s acceptable for me to miss 50 of them. To me, that’s an alarmingly high error rate—personally, I’d be embarrassed to call myself a professional editor if I missed 50 errors out of 1,000. I estimate that my own error rate is about 0.5% to 1%—perhaps I might miss five to ten errors out of 1,000.

But trying to quantify errors raises the question—what is an error, anyway? As I’ve pointed out, the vast majority of changes I make in editing a full-length book manuscript are not corrections of absolute errors at all—they are stylistic changes, revisions, and suggestions that smooth and polish the writing, making it more concise and easier to read. A sentence can be grammatically correct but awkward, convoluted, wordy, or unclear. I might end up heavily revising such a sentence but correcting no actual grammar errors. Consider how I cut the following grammatically correct but wordy and awkward paragraph’s word count by nearly half without altering the meaning:

Before editing:

Close analysis of individual human behaviors reveals that a complete explanation of how and why they occur when and how they do cannot be built up from a list of individual behaviors and the advantages that practicing them might give to the tribe that does so. What I am trying to say here is that we can’t reason our way to a moral code for all humans without first understanding that all humans are capable of forming very large patterns of thinking that we usually call “concepts” or “beliefs”.

After editing:

Analysis of human behaviours reveals they cannot be completely explained by their collective advantages to the tribe. Reasoning our way to a moral code for all humans isn’t possible without first understanding that humans are capable of forming large patterns of thinking called concepts or beliefs.

Obviously, this kind of revision and clarification can’t be quantified as an error that’s been fixed. Or can it? If so, what percentage of the total number of errors does it represent? Seems difficult, if not impossible, to say.

Further, it’s possible some inconsistency has slipped through the cracks. For example, a couple of days ago in my current edit I spotted the protagonist pulling down blinds in a shop she’d entered in the previous chapter, at which time she’d noticed the shop’s blinds were already down. Oops—yes, I’d say that’s an error. I felt I’d dodged a bullet, editorially, because a small inconsistency like that is all too easy for an editor to miss.

Errors in self-published versus traditionally published books

Typically, there are more editorial eyes on a manuscript published by a publishing house than on a self-published manuscript, simply because an indie author usually doesn’t have the financial resources to hire a developmental editor, substantive editor, line editor, copy editor, and proofreader. As an editor of primarily self-published books, I try to do as many levels of editing as I can in a single pass. While this isn’t optimal, and I encourage a partial second pass of editing and/or a proofread, a single pass is often all the author can afford. In these cases, it’s nearly impossible to produce an error-free manuscript, though of course I do my best. (Read more about the editorial process here.)

Even at big publishing houses, chances that a few errors will slip through are high. As we all know, cutbacks have been happening regularly in traditional publishing in the past few decades, and even if a manuscript is seen by five sets of editorial eyes, in general not as much attention is paid to a manuscript as in the golden olden days of publishing. There’s my example above with Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness (the only time I’ve ever written to a publishing house over book errors). Last year I found timeline and age discrepancy errors in Joyce Carol Oates’s The Tattooed Girl. In recent discussions on editor errors, my colleagues have cited errors in Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Tom Wolfe, James Patterson, Jeff Lindsay, and of course, Dan Brown (google “Da Vinci Code errors” to see the long lists).

Last-minute author tinkering can result in residual errors in both self- and traditionally published books. Some authors just can’t stop fussing and fiddling, even in the proofing stages. Further, editors can be asked to use a very light copy-editing hand with big-name authors whose style is well established, even though it’s quirky. This happened to me in 2014 with Johanna Skibsrud’s latest novel Quartet for the End of Time (WW Norton), in which I left in hundreds of punctuation anomalies because they were part of the author’s style; I have little doubt they’ll be seen as editor errors by some readers. Another observation from my colleagues is that more editorial attention is paid to hardcover books than to mass-market paperbacks.

In conclusion

As an editor, should you correct other editors’ errors on Facebook and other informal media? For the most part, fuggedaboutit. You’ll just reinforce the stereotype of editor as schoolmarmish nit-picker. But as an editor, it’s in your best interests to avoid sloppiness in any of your written communication, whether it’s through social media, emailing, or even texting. You just might be corresponding with a potential client.

If you’re a writer and you’ve found a mistake in your editor’s work after publication, I can empathize with how cringe-inducing it must feel. Please try to remember that editors are not robots; we’re only doing the best job possible with whatever budget constraints, time constraints, and other parameters we’ve been given. And not every editor can know everything—we all have knowledge gaps and blind spots. Try to keep in mind that 5% error rate I cited—that even 5% is considered acceptable by some in the editorial world. Think about the hundreds and thousands of errors your editor did catch to make you look better. Be realistic—and keep a list of errors so you can fix them on your next print run or file upload.

And if you’re an editor, and you’ve found a mistake in a freshly printed book you’ve just edited, try not to beat yourself up. Muphry’s Law (yes, Muphry’s Law, the editorial version) states that if you dare to open a published book you’ve edited, the first thing to jump out at you will be a glaring flaw you missed. It happens to all of us. The best three things you can do, for your sanity and protection, are to 1) try to resist a deep inspection of newly published books you’ve edited, 2) remember that you’ve likely improved the manuscript in countless ways unfathomable to your author before you began editing, and 3) have an error clause in your contract.

Whether you’re a reader, writer, or editor, my plea is that you try to have a little tolerance and compassion when judging any editor’s writing or editing. After all, to edit—and occasionally err—is human; to forgive, divine.

As a reader, how many errors do you tolerate in a published book, blog, newspaper, or magazine? Does it make a difference to you if the book is self-published? Are you more tolerant of errors in a self-published book than errors by a big-name author from a big publishing house? I’d love to have your feedback on this.

Picture of Arlene Prunkl

Arlene Prunkl

Arlene Prunkl is a freelance manuscript editor and the owner of PenUltimate Editorial Services. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

I welcome all comments. Please note that Disqus is a secure commenting system requiring moderator approval, and it may be a short while before I receive notification of your comment, approve it, and reply. Thanks for your patience!

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40 Responses

  1. This is excellent, thank you – and I will refer people to it who ask about errors.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Liz! There’s been so much talk about this topic lately in editors’ groups that I thought it was time for a blog post on it.

  2. Brilliant article, Arlene!

    As for your question about whether, as a reader, I’m more forgiving of errors in a self-published book, I’d argue that unless it’s painfully obvious that the book is self-published, I wouldn’t necessarily seek out the information and judge the book differently. On the other hand, if I found an unusually high amount of errors, as someone who works in the publishing industry I would be curious about the publisher. If I discovered the book was self-published, I would be more forgiving because of the issues of budget you outlined above – though my understanding has a limit. I wonder if non-publishing professionals would feel the same way … Without inside knowledge of the field, I doubt it. To a reader, an error-riddled manuscript is an error-riddled manuscript.

    1. These are great points, Sophie. I hadn’t thought about the difference between a publishing professional’s opinion of book errors and a lay reader’s opinion. I agree with you: as an editor of mostly indie books, I’d be a bit more forgiving of errors because I know how hard it is to make a perfect book in a single editing pass (or even two). I’m much harder on big publishers. But I doubt most lay readers would notice the distinction unless, as you say, the book is poorly produced and looks obviously self-published.

  3. Great article, Arlene! I was especially interested in your comments on social media writing. I had an interesting discussion along these lines with the students at the BC Youth Writers Camp this past week 🙂

    1. And what conclusions did you reach, Norma? It’s so interesting to me how the topic of editor errors seems to be on lots of people’s radars these days. I actually had the idea for this blog post about six months ago, but I was too afraid to write about it — it seemed to be the elephant in the room that no one acknowledged. I’m glad I found my courage, because it’s a subject that needs to be discussed.

      1. I was actually really surprised by how many of these young writers (ages 8 to 18) had strong opinions in regard to sloppy writing and editing: most of them want to write well, and they don’t appreciate poorly edited work! So that’s a positive.

        As the editor for the camp anthology for the past three years, I’ve received some submissions that needed unbelievable amounts of work, and of course some that were already pretty much perfectly polished. The saddest thing, to me, has been that the ones that needed the most work were ones that had been submitted first to English teachers, and received “A+” grades. I understand that some teachers are more interested in creativity than in grammatical correctness, but if the piece is so difficult to read that it’s almost impossible to understand, then what’s the point? I also understand, having taught English myself, that when it’s 3 a.m. and you’ve been marking 60 or 70 essays on the same topic for the past 7 or 8 hours, you begin to do crazy things with your marking. And I also understand that the big theme in education for the past 30 years or more, has been “self-esteem at all costs” which explains a lot about poor writing. So I’m pleased to see that there are still young people who are concerned about quality rather than pats on their precious little heads.

        As for our discussion on social media short cuts, I was impressed that many of the students really did understand that a writer needs to consider their audience and their writing platform. Most of them like using casual language with lots of shortened words–in twitter and Facebook posts. But they were almost all concerned about the fact that mom, dad, grandparents, teachers, and employers might be looking over their shoulder, and they understand that even in these writing platforms, they need to be thoughtful about what they write and how they write. They also had some interesting insights into how careless writing, even in social media, can be so easily misconstrued. Of course these are young people who are giving up a week of school holidays, or even a week of work holidays, to learn to be better writers. But still, it was really encouraging to hear their thoughts.

        One more thing: Out of the 60 or so students there, I asked how many had felt that the anthology editing process had been too tough, and felt that I had been a “grammar nazi.” Only one student admitted to that–though of course there were probably a few who were too polite or nervous to admit to it. But really, each year I only have a small handful who complain. The majority are incredibly appreciative. The deal is that they have to send in their anthology submissions by a certain date, so that I will have time to send them a careful, thoughtful edit (including comments and explanations about the things I point out or suggest), and then they can go through their piece and do self-editing. Sometimes a piece will go back and forth a half dozen times. I always make the point that I want to honour their voice, and I encourage them to tell me their audience, purpose, and proposed platform, genre, and format, so that the editing takes those things into consideration. I have to say that I have often learned more, myself, through this process with these young people than I have in working as an editor with experienced adult writers.

        Well, that’s probably way more than you wanted to know, Arlene, but I’m really excited to see young people so willing–and eager– to write well!

  4. And what conclusions did you reach, Norma? It’s so interesting to me how the topic of editor errors seems to be on lots of people’s radars these days. I actually had the idea for this blog post about six months ago, but I was too afraid to write about it — it seemed to be the elephant in the room that no one acknowledged. I’m glad I found my courage, because it’s a subject that needs to be discussed.

  5. I once made a joke about Muphry’s Law and someone took me to task for misspelling Murphy. Awkward. 🙂

    But anyway, I love this post. I don’t think we should, as a profession, be shy about our errors. Two things are absolutes here: first, as you point out so astutely, Arlene, we’re human; second, we never stop learning, which by any logic means that work we did last year (or last month, or, yikes, yesterday) will be less informed than work we do today. It’s unavoidable. So in a sense, as we progress in our editing careers, we are celebrating our increasingly sharpened skills as editors.

    Okay, I took up your challenge to find that one error, and I found it, Arlene: “Obviously, this kind of revision and clarification can’t be quantified as an error that’s been fixed.” But one error (that I could see) in almost three thousand words is pretty impressive!

    1. See! I knew another editor would find a typo! Yay for you, David — and thanks. I’ve fixed it, of course. I’d say that’s the very definition of Muphry’s Law — an error in my blog post about editing errors. By the way, if someone calls you on Muphry’s, just send them here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muphry%27s_law. I was interested to learn the term was coined by Australian editor John Bangsund in 1992.

      And yes, you’re so right about editors always learning and improving at our craft. I especially see this when I’m working on a series. It’s undeniable that my editing is more informed these days than it was in the first book of the series even three or four years ago.

      1. True. Once you get bitten by the editing bug, it’s the epitome of a journey not a destination!

        1. So true. And I’m loving that journey! I wonder how many authors understand that concept, though, with regard to their editors. Could be fodder for another blog post . . .

  6. Interesting article. Discussions come up on LinkedIn occasionally – one just yesterday, in fact – asking whether editors ‘guarantee’ perfection, to which the responses are usually a resounding NO! Although I strive for perfection, I don’t catch every error when editing fiction manuscripts (less likely with non-fiction, business documentation, etc.). Very long manuscripts and/or ones that need developmental editing – and may have gone back to the client to work on before copy editing – tend to be the ones where I miss odd things. PhD theses are also tricky to get absolutely ‘perfect’. It often comes down to the client’s budget or time constraints, which denotes how many passes you get to do. Even with the luxury of extra passes, after a while your eyes begin to gloss over things because you become almost as familiar with the story as the writer. At that point, a fresh pair of proofreading eyes would be ideal. Recent books I’ve read have contained numerous silly mistakes – too many, in my opinion (especially considering these books were written by respected authors and published by large publishing houses), and nowadays, you pick up a magazine or newspaper knowing there will be many errors. All we can do is hold ourselves to our own high standards in all our communications and editing work, accept that we’re not perfect, and exercise good judgement as to when it’s appropriate, useful (and not futile) to point out other’s mistakes.

    1. Nicely said, Sally. You’ve touched on one thing I neglected to point out in my post — that editors cannot guarantee perfection. In the course of any editor’s career, we can expect to encounter at least a couple of authors who expect perfection; I know I have. For this reason, I now have an error clause in my contract.

  7. A widely appreciated article, Arlene! Addressing one issue, budget limitations will certainly put restrictions on additional editorial passes, for which reason many editors, including yourself as you point out, will work through a manuscript applying various levels of editing. In some instances, though, an author will simply insist that a single pass is sufficient, secure in the knowledge that any additional improvements needed in grammar, syntax, or style will be picked up through a final personal proofreading. This is often where many writing weaknesses get repeated or added: repetitive words and phrases, other redundancies, dialogue tags complete with descriptive adverbs, more superfluous language, etc. The editor then has no idea how his or her work is reflected in the final version. Like everyone else, I’m glad you’ve raised a topic that covers so may points of frustration.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Irene. Yes, some authors on limited budgets have nearly impossible expectations regarding perfection in editing. Often, this means a process of educating self-publishing authors at the outset on the entire editing process; in particular, that it’s usually the most expensive, time-consuming part of the editorial and book production process. It’s so important for an author and editor to be in agreement on this or the result is frustration for both parties.

  8. Great blog post. I try my best to make what I work on free of errors, but as you note, others may make changes after the work leaves my hands. I spent ages correcting, organizing, shortening, etc., a book manuscript and proofed it to death … and what do I see when I get the printed book but an inserted “thanks” to me for all my work — misspelling my name!

    I’ve been tempted many times to write to book publishers about errors, but I don’t think I’ve ever done it. It’s hard to know whether it might be helpful for them to see that a typo or two stowed away in their book, or if it would just be playing “gotcha” and getting some editor in trouble. Or could there be any chance that someone might actually note the error(s) for a possible second edition? It seems like a long shot.

    I read a lot on a Kindle, and it’s awful how sloppy some Kindle books are. In a Kindle edition, it seems that a publisher that cares about its books should be able to make small corrections. Seeing errors on something printed is just that much worse. And finding an error in something I submitted is worst of all.

    –Eagle-eyed but hardly error-free (and a big fan of Alice Munro — she deserves only the best)

    1. Chessie, I can sympathize! The same thing has happened to me regarding the incorrect spelling of my name in the acknowledgments in several books I’ve edited that are now sitting on my shelf. At first it felt awful, but now I just take it in stride (I do have a name a lot of people struggle with, but you’d think, after corresponding with me for a month on the editing, they’d know the spelling of my name.)

      And yes, there does seem to be more sloppiness and errors in e-books. I wonder why that is? Because they cost less and therefore their editorial budget is lower? Is there some sort of unspoken feeling with publishers that the value of e-books is less than print books, so they’re treated as if they’re less important than print? I don’t know. It will be interesting to see whether the quality of e-books eventually improves.

  9. Arlene, thank you for this article. I am a professional freelance editor and often unnecessarily stress myself out over whether or not I have caught EVERY error (I’ve yet to accept that I’m human!). You mentioned an error clause in a client contract; what would this sound like?

    1. Sarah, essentially my contract states that the editor relinquishes responsibility for any inadvertent errors in the final product. If you’d like to e-mail me (info@penultimateword.com), I’ll be happy to send you the full version of my contract, where you can see the full disclaimer.

  10. I’m impressed you still do that, Paula. I recall trying that method once, about ten years ago, and I just couldn’t do it for any length of time. You’re right — very tedious. And even if I could, most of my clients don’t have the budget for an extra step like that. But I’m sure it does catch a few remaining errors. Books from 50 or 100 years ago don’t have as many (if any) errors because extra steps like that were taken in the editorial process in those days.

  11. I used to get worked up about the grocer’s apostrophe, phrasing like “my wife and myself”, and homonym confusion in ordinary life, but I’d rather keep quiet and preserve my relationships (and not alienate perfect strangers) than be “right”. Working as an editor helps; I don’t worry about that stuff unless I’m writing it or editing it.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Wendy. I remember getting incredibly worked up over errors like the ones you cite in my first few years of editing. I felt so powerful, as if I knew secrets to English grammar that most ordinary people had no clue about. It didn’t take me long to come down off my pedestal, because the more I learned, the more I became aware of how much I didn’t know. Nowadays, not only am I much more humble because I know I also make errors, but it’s just not worth exerting too much energy over English errors in everyday life. (Unless, of course, you’re Lynne Truss, and you can make millions with a bestseller about being a grammar sticker.)

  12. I do have a simple question: why were editing and proofreading budgets higher back then than they are today? Why is quality being compromised?

    It almost seems self-defeating, considering the importance of editing and developing new writers.

    1. Rashad, it’s a good question. If I had the answer, I’d probably be rich. I suppose one could ask, why is quality compromised with any product or service one buys these days? Why is my washer/dryer breaking down after only five years of use, when my parents’ lasted 30 years? Quality seems to be compromised so often nowadays (not in my editorial services, however!). So often, companies are only focused on the bottom line — they want to make more profit by laying off more staff and compromising on quality.

  13. I try to turn in error-free content for my clients, without burning up too many hours. Yet blind spots do occur. This is why I make a point of attending a grammar and/or editing refresher course once a year through the Editors’ Association of Canada.

  14. Though not yet a pro editor, as a grammar nerd and lover of words I’m leaning that way as retirement approaches. Realizing I don’t know everything and make enough mistakes of my own, I still grit my teeth over some of the errors I find in published works. I’m more tolerant of mistakes in self-published products, I guess because I think the big boy publishing houses should know better. It’s irritating to find blatant errors in a book by a known author I’ve paid good money for.

    Some mistakes can yank you right out of the story. The worst example I’ve came across is “The H.P. Lovecraft Institute”, and the only one I considered actually writing the publisher about. Punctuation errors; missing words; confused POV; changes in character names; mutilated, mixed-up sentences; entire sections in the wrong place…the works. But the story was actually compelling, and I wound up finishing the book. It would have been a much more satisfying journey, however, if the novel hadn’t been possessed by all those dang grammar imps. I’ve often wondered what the author had to say about the final editing.

  15. Editors exist to help a writer communicate with the reader.
    I wrote technical training manuals (beginning 45 years ago) about hi-tech logic devices.
    My goal was to write the finest training material that could be written and I didn’t stop until I achieved it. I knew when I achieved it when:
    1. I could convey a large body of complex knowledge without being present.
    [i.e. entirely learner-driven]
    2. Students surpassed preexisting norms for diagnosing & repair immediately after
    training. Typically 30%. — All measurable.
    3. Training was completed with no questions asked.
    4. Students required no prerequisites.
    5. Training time was dramatically reduced. [at least 85%]
    6. Students read without interruption for five successive 8-hr days. [40 hours]
    7. Students were engrossed by what they were learning and continued to read
    while walking to and from the restroom.
    8. Neither class size nor location mattered.
    9. Training could be provided at any time or place upon demand through photo copy.
    [This was 35 years ago — pre-Internet]

    Today — all of that can, be done on the Internet — the identification of need, accumulation of resources, distillation of complexity, assessment of relevance & effectiveness, simplification of expression, and distribution to the interested.

    Understand your audience and your material.
    Grammar and style depend on whatever communicates clearly with the least effort by the reader/learner.

    My motivation and inspiration came from the US Naval Nuclear Power Program 50 years ago.

  16. Hello! I am hoping to get some assistance here even though the last post was 2 years ago. I recently wrote a “how to” book on how to play American Mah Jongg. It went through 7 Readers including 2 Editors. The book was finally printed and received and at least 60 copies sent out thus far. My son who has never played the game decided to read it and WHOA…he found a big mistake. Not a grammatical one I can pass of to “the Editor missed” it. So my questions are, A. What is the best way to get the correction out to those that purchased the book?? And B. What do I do with the other 65 books I have sitting here that I paid dearly for, if you know what I mean. I know for future I can upload the corrected copies into ingramsparks but what do I do now?? HELP PLEASE and THANK YOU!!

    1. Hi Deborah,

      I feel bad for you! I certainly know the feeling of panic over a mistake that’s been missed. I don’t know how you would get the correction to those who’ve already purchased your book unless you’ve kept a database of them, in which case you could send a bulk email. The next thing to do would be to contact the people at IngramSpark/Amazon and see if they’ve kept a record. At the same time, make sure to get the error corrected for future books you print. And for those books remaining in your possession, prepare a short note on a book-page-sized piece of paper that you can slip inside the book. The heading on this note should be ERRATA (meaning “error”) and beneath it, explain the error and include the page number where it can be found. Put this note in each book that you send out.

      I hope this helps!

      1. Hi Arlene and thank you for responding. I do fortunately have a data base of emails for all those that purchased. And, I’ve already prepared the Errata page after researching a bit in FB support groups. So, I’m good to go with that. Once you publish in Ingramspark you never lose your copy and it is easy to upload the revisions. Just a bit of a bummer but onward and upward! Thank you!!

        1. Sounds as if you have the problem well in hand, Deborah.Yes, nobody died, so onward and upward! And for your next book, may I suggest a few beta readers who are experts in the game, before you publish?

  17. Fascinating article, Arlene and love your site.

    18 months into a super job working for a hybrid publisher, I am now on my 18th book. These have been mainly short, life memoirs – anything from 50,000 to 110,000 words – but have included fiction, history / self-help, the manifesto of a politician and one man’s polemic on society.

    The authors have been first-time writers in all but two cases. The editorial tasks have been different for every book. Although, of course, they have all involved proofreading, every one of them has needed line / copy editing. Some have needed significant structural work, so much so, that I would say they have bordered on basic book development to get the structure in good enough shape to be telling the story / proposition effectively.

    My boss is willing to accept submissions if he thinks the book is a good one and can achieve sales but that does mean that what ends up with me can be anything from an already reasonably polished draft to one which effectively still needs to be written, albeit from a first draft. Indeed, amongst these have been a few manuscripts where I have felt as if I am writing the book, there has been so much work needed not just on structuring the overall content but in shaping the line-by- line writing to make it read properly.

    On others, I have come up with titles and have created the chapters and chapter titles too.

    It’s all very varied and I like that.

    Thankfully, my wonderful boss who continues to publish a fascinating line of eclectic titles (see my FB timeline, where I post details of the ones I have worked on) puts no pressure on me at all and allows the appropriate time for me to complete the needed tasks. If anything, due to my ex-corporate marketing background, I am the one still imbued by a deadline culture seeking to get the book finished probably a bit faster than seems to be the norm in the publishing industry.

    But all this being said, I have found myself getting way too charged up, almost as if I am going to transform into the Incredible Hulk, when authors tell me that a friend has spotted an error here or a relative has found a mistake there, once their book has been out for a few weeks.

    It’s almost as if the authors, who have been, without exception, lovely, are a bit surprised that there are errors at all. From a position which I am willing to admit may be too defensive, I have had to bite my lip and say nothing when what I really want to say is that if we have ended up with a published book with a handful (and a small handful at that) of what are minor errors, after all the work we / I have been through, then actually, such a small error count is a thing of celebration, not something we should be discussing a bit sheepishly, as if someone has turned up to dinner with a rip in their trousers or their dress.

    With more and more authors now, as I move from one book to another, I’m finding that I am happier to be honest and up front with them about what to expect as I feel that this approach will help manage expectations and reflect reality.

    Seeing as initial print runs are often small to manage costs in relation to demand, my boss is always willing to print new batches from an updated file, which I can produce easily.

    In fact, just writing this post, I think that to lay out the pathway for authors to expect errors on the basis that we are seeking to publish without any, is the way to go.

    Keep up your great work 🙂

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