When editors make (or miss) mistakes . . .

To edit is human; to forgive, divine.

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.

♠ ♠ ♠

book and manuscript editing

Arlene Prunkl is a freelance manuscript editor
and the owner of PenUltimate Editorial Services
You can find her on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook
July 15, 2015


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