Editors have a complicated relationship with perfection. On one hand, it’s something every editor should strive for. On the other, we recognize that perfection doesn’t exist. While we try our darnedest to return every job with every issue resolved, it’s inevitable for the occasional error to slip by.
I’ll always remember a conversation I had with a writer about his first experience with a copy editor. After publishing his 400-page novel, he—and, woefully, his readers—found several errors his editor had completely missed. He was furious! What had he paid the editor for if not to fix those mistakes? Of course, I could feel his pain. However, I assured him it didn’t mean his editor did a poor job.
Editors want their clients to be proud of their writing. It stings to know that there will be mistakes in the final copy—that readers will raise an eyebrow at the occasional missing article or misplaced comma. Still, it is a truth we must accept.
Why Can’t Everything Be Fixed?
For a little perspective: editing a 75,000-word novel for a recent project, I made over 11,000 revisions (between insertions, deletions, and moves). That’s a lot of changes! While I would love to say I resolved every issue and didn’t introduce a single one, it’s hard to believe that anyone could do that much work without making any mistakes.
Therein lies the first barrier to perfection: sheer volume. A novel-sized editing project can mean weeks of work. Unfortunately for editors, the brain is excellent at filling in missing details and interpreting muddled input automatically. While we can train ourselves to notice these details with a higher success rate, we’re constantly at war with our physiology. Occasionally, over time, the subconscious will win.
Error variety and density are other reasons we may miss things. When we edit, we zero in on the errors and focus on resolving them. However, as we “jump the tracks” over to verb tense or sentence structure, we may miss a nearby rogue apostrophe. Juggling the hundreds of grammar, style, and punctuation rules can result in the occasional fumble. Good thing we aren’t juggling chainsaws!
Finally, few (if any) can say they know every rule governing the English language. While an editor should have exceptional knowledge and a pool of resources to draw answers from, it’s possible they missed an error because they didn’t know it was one! Still, mistakes stemming from a lack of knowledge should account for the fewest number of errors remaining in your manuscript.
An oft-cited standard for an editor’s expected error-catching rate is 95 percent. Does this mean I’d gladly hand over an editing project with five percent of its errors unresolved? Absolutely not! The goal is still 100 percent. What it does mean is that you’re likely to find mistakes in every printed book if you look hard enough. Even for high-budget publications that have seen editing passes from several different editors, mistakes can and will trickle through.
What Can I Do About It?
You want to publish your work with the fewest number of missed errors as possible? You and me both! Here are a few things the author can do to help chew away at those last few percentage points of remaining issues:
Self-editing – This helps by reducing the variety and density of errors in your manuscript, which means less issues fighting for the editor’s attention. See my blog post on self-editing for some guidance.
Careful review – When your editor returns your manuscript, go over every change—and if you need help using Word to effectively review changes, ask! If your editor encourages you to apply revisions directly, be extra cautious about introducing new errors. I go over every adjustment the author makes during this step, but like with the first pass, missing errors is also possible here.
Communication – Make sure you and your editor are on the same page about what work you require from them. If you’ve hired someone as a structural editor, they’re likely not paying close attention to mechanical issues—that’s a copy editor’s job. If you do also need them to perform copy editing, let them know! Also, if you notice that the editor has missed something, (kindly!) bring it to their attention. This will bring such issues to the front of their mind, and they’ll be less likely to miss similar errors going forward.
Additional passes – While hiring a full team to handle different editing tasks is cost-prohibitive for most self-published authors, a fresh set of eyes does help. If you can bear the expense, consider having a separate structural editor, copy editor, and/or proofreader.