An American Editor

July 31, 2013

The Business of Editing: The Demand for Perfection

In a LinkedIn group, there has been a discussion about errors that are missed by editors. The discussion is a great illustration of the disconnect between reasonable and unreasonable expectations in editing.

On the one hand, you have an author who admits his manuscript is far from perfect and who expects the editor to make it error-free or keep working on it at the editor’s expense until the manuscript is error-free. On the other hand, you have editors who offer a broad range for what constitutes an acceptable number of errors. The discussion began with the question, “How many errors is it acceptable for an editor to miss in a 200-page manuscript?” The answers ranged from zero to (you pick a number).

Needless to say, there was a gap that could not be bridged. Authors (and some editors – usually editors who were also authors) remained steadfast in the belief that an error-free manuscript was not only a desirable goal but an achievable goal. Others, including myself, remained steadfast in the belief that, as long as editing is done by humans, there will be errors.

Fundamentally, however, the entire discussion missed the salient point. The discussion remained focused on coming up with a number, such as 5 errors in 1,000 pages, rather than on the core issue: What constitutes an error?

Editing has always been a profession of opinion. Unlike the physical sciences that are governed by strict “laws,” editorial decisions are governed by informed opinion, nothing more. One person’s error is another person’s artistic breakthrough. Although we point to “authorities” such as dictionaries and manuals of style and usage to justify decisions we make, we really aren’t pointing to immutable, unbreakable “laws” or “rules” — we are pointing to consensus opinion at best.

That the consensus opinion is formed by a group of people who we grant the power to be the diviners of what is and what should not be, the truth is that their opinion is rarely more informed or valuable than our opinion. Their opinion has an aura, a mystique, if you will, of authority, something our opinion lacks, but that doesn’t change their opinion from opinion to gospel. It has the force and validity we give it.

Which brings me back to error. Is it error to be diametrically opposite consensus opinion? If it were, we would still be preaching that the sun revolves around the earth — or is that something different? Surely it is different because it is fact, immutable, provable, and today unquestionable (except by the fringe few) –  it is nothing like an editorial opinion.

Is it grey or gray? One or 1? Is they singular or only plural? Can we safely and correctly split the infinitive? Is due to acceptable or must it be replaced with the correct, precise phrase? Can since and because be used synonymously or is since only for expression of time passage?

At precisely what point in the journey do we pass from opinion to error? Who decides what is error?

Perhaps of all the questions, this last question is the most important, because once we assign the power to determine error, we assign the right to make editorial decisions and we determine whose opinion is superior. The fallacy in my argument is, of course, demonstrated by the three Ws (or is it W’s?): w8, weight, wait. Is it an error to leave unchanged “I’ll w8 for you” or “I’ll weight for you”?

The immediate answer I expect from colleagues is, “Yes, it is clearly error to use w8 or weight when you mean wait.” But let us consider the response. First, it assumes that I intend wait. Based on the education we have received and our years of experience with interpreting language, it is very likely that wait is intended. It is a 99.9999999% safe bet. But it is not a 100% sure bet in the absence of surrounding information.

The second problem is that to declare the use of w8 or weight for wait as an error is to declare that English is a static language; that meanings and spellings never change; that because it was linguistically true yesterday, it must be linguistically true today, and will be linguistically true tomorrow. Where, then, has the growth in dictionaries come from? How did since become an acceptable clone of because?

So we go round and round, with no beginning and no end, in resolving the question of what is an error. No matter how it is sliced and diced, what is an error in the editorial sense is a matter of opinion, not a matter of fact. We can turn it into a matter of fact by prefacing the editorial process with a declaration that these authorities — x, y, and z — shall govern matters of spelling, grammar, and usage, which is what we do in our daily work.

When dealing with publishers, such parameters are usually laid out in advance of the work. In my experience, few authors have enough familiarity with these editorial resources to make such a predetermination. I suspect that it is one novelist in 5,000 who says “Please follow the _________ style manual” when hiring an editor.

When an author demands perfection as the standard, predetermining who and what will be the arbiters of what constitutes an error is fundamental. However, there are other factors that need to come into play as well. Consider time.

Most novelists I have dealt with have said that they spent more than a year, often many years, on writing and rewriting and having their novel peer-reviewed and redrafted again to bring the manuscript to its current state of readiness for editing. Then they drop the bombshell of wanting an error-free edited manuscript in 30 (or fewer) days. After years of writing and rewriting and not producing an error-free manuscript, the expectation is that the editor can fix all problems quickly. Does anything more need to be said about the matter of time?

Consider money. I have yet to meet the publisher or author who says that neither time nor money is a problem. Editors are rarely, if ever, given unlimited time and an unlimited budget in which to produce an error-free edited manuscript. I also have not met a publisher or author who will agree to pay $150 an hour for as many hours as it takes to achieve an error-free manuscript. Usually what I hear, and what colleagues tell me they, too, hear, is that the edited manuscript is needed within 30 (or fewer) days and that the budget is capped at, say, 30 hours at $20 an hour.

It isn’t clear to me how perfection is to be achieved on a limited budget with a limited amount of time. It took months or years to bring the manuscript to the more perfect, but still imperfect, state it is in at the time it is presented for editing. Why is the expectation that it can be moved from its current state of imperfection to a state of perfection within days at very little cost? Why do some authors consider this a reasonable expectation?

An error-free manuscript should be the goal for which an editor should strive, but it should not become an albatross. It is unreasonable, I think, to demand perfection from someone else when you do not produce it yourself. But if you are going to demand editorial perfection, be prepared to define what constitutes an error in advance and who and what shall be the arbiters of right versus wrong (error vs. nonerror), to accept an open-ended schedule, and to provide an unlimited budget at a reasonable (to the editor) rate of pay.

26 Comments »

  1. “It is unreasonable, I think, to demand perfection from someone else when you do not produce it yourself.”

    Indeed. And that should be our mutual expectation with all people in all things.

    However, life doesn’t work that way. Often editors, who are service providers and self-employed, compare themselves to plumbers and doctors and lawyers and mechanics. Almost all of us hand over those hefty fees expecting those practitioners to do error-free work, then get extremely peeved when something goes afoul. So why do we expect authors to expect any less of us? They trust us to polish up their work because we are more experienced and professional. That’s why they pay us.

    So it’s up to us to educate our clients about reasonable expectation, and define our performance standards with work agreements and contracts.

    Comment by Carolyn — July 31, 2013 @ 6:05 am | Reply

    • I have to disagree that we expect perfection from various professions and trades. For example, when I go to the doctor with some symptoms of a minor or common illness, the doctor will usually give me instructions to do something or take some medication, and always adds something like, if you don’t feel better in ___ days, call/come into the office. In the few times I’ve hired a lawyer for anything, I’ve picked one based on reputation, referrals from friends, etc., in other words, I recognize that not all lawyers are the same and so how could I expect perfection from any one of them? And don’t even get me started on how many times we’ve had to call back the very highly reputable plumber to work on the same problem? He tries one solution, the one most likely to work and at the same time be cost-effective (you wouldn’t replace your hot-water heater or furnace for a minor issue; replacing them would certainly solve any problem, but it wouldn’t be cost-effective).

      When I used to be a tax preparer for a major national chain, the company’s policy in the event of an audit was to support the taxpayer by explaining anything we did on the tax return to the IRS. I believe they would refund the fee if was our mistake, but we wouldn’t cover any taxes or penalties due. We wouldn’t act as a tax lawyer to represent the person, either. Just the fact that there is a policy in the event of an audit means that the tax preparer’s work might not be perfect (well, and also that taxpayers might not be representing their situations honestly either).

      Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — July 31, 2013 @ 12:37 pm | Reply

      • Thank you! What you’ve expressed is perfect. If an editor wants to use comparisons in discussions with an author client, I believe they should do so with your examples clearly in mind.

        Comment by Maria D'Marco — July 31, 2013 @ 12:48 pm | Reply

    • Part 2: So, why should we hold ourselves to an unrealistic level of perfection, which is not possible in any profession or trade, let alone in any human being? As a quilter, I like an analogy to a tradition in quilt making that goes like this: The Amish, famous for their quilts, intentionally included a mistake in every quilt so as not to produce perfection, because only God is perfect. This has been proven to be mostly mythological: that is, the intentional part. Amish quilters did not, and do not, purposely include mistakes in their quilts (because that would be like saying if I didn’t make a mistake intentionally, I’d produce a perfect quilt — not very humble!) The reality was that it’s pretty much impossible to create a quilt (or anything for that matter) that is perfect (stitches, if nothing else, cannot be absolutely uniform, even machine stiches), but time does not allow for ripping out every mistake and redoing until “perfection” is achieved. So the reality is closer to what we all do, when we create anything (and I consider editing to be a creative act): Do your best, but there will never be enough time (or money) for you to go over it again and again, ripping out the bad parts and replacing with perfection.

      Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — July 31, 2013 @ 12:41 pm | Reply

  2. We expect e.g. a plumber to fix the problem we are having to a large extent. If I have a new sink installed and later find that the tap drips, and I have to tighten something, perhaps I am slightly irritated, but I wouldn’t claim that he or she hasn’t done the job I paid for.
    On an average manuscript, I make 30-60 changes per page (the reviewing pane in Word shows you how many), for hundreds of pages. If the author later finds a few errors missed, I don’t feel bad at all. They are one or two weighed against thousands of improvements made to the text.

    Comment by Gem — July 31, 2013 @ 6:57 am | Reply

  3. I don’t promise perfection; I promise excellence, and am confident that that’s what I deliver. On the rare occasion that I miss something, I may offer a few dollars’ refund, mostly to maintain goodwill. In many years of writing, editing, proofreading, etc., I’ve only had one client go ballistic over a missed typo they made in layout that I missed in last-minute proofreading and that got into print. Most are just grateful for everything that I do catch or fix.

    Carolyn has a good point about establishing expectations and educating clients. But Gem, I’d call that plumber back to fix that drip, at no extra charge!

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — July 31, 2013 @ 9:49 am | Reply

  4. In my experience, I stick “perfection” only in the venue of proofreading. A manuscript that is inches from hitting the presses (so to speak) is the only document that I feel warrants the status of being perfect. Ruth mentions the only circumstance I would consider appropriate for seeking an error-free document.

    My acceptable error count would wholly depend upon the status of the manuscript and the type of editing service I am providing. As this piece references another discussion of error acceptability in editing, I have to assume that the discussion involved numerous editors with varying perceptions of the discussion topic. I see the actual issue as being the expectations any author has regarding editing services. This brings me to educating authors on what can be reasonably achieved and what perfection will require from them.

    Again, I view proofreading as the only editorial service that involves a demand for perfection.

    Oyes (as my grandma always wrote at the bottom of her postcards) – I really dislike editors being compared to plumbers and auto mechanics – every person who is a service provider, regardless of the service, should pursue excellence and professionalism in every element of their performance. And we will still make errors! :)

    Comment by Maria D'Marco — July 31, 2013 @ 11:11 am | Reply

    • What’s wrong with being compared to plumbers and auto mechanics? They’re simply examples of service providers that most of us have to deal with at some point or other.

      Comment by Carolyn — July 31, 2013 @ 12:22 pm | Reply

      • Nothing is wrong with the comparison, I have friends and family in both professions. Just a very personal observation on something I don’t use in discussions with my author clients. Sorry if I offended by doing so…

        Comment by Maria D'Marco — July 31, 2013 @ 12:42 pm | Reply

  5. I often tell authors that I’ve found typos in Merriam-Webster’s (11th edition); imagine the scrutiny by an army of editors and proofreaders those pages received, and yet there it was: a typo.

    Editing on a screen isn’t ideal. For all the tools that digital editing makes available, I still insist on doing at least one final proof on hardcopy. In a digital file, stuff moves around even while we’re working on it, whole lines can go missing near page breaks, and it’s easier for errors to hide in a page busy with Track Changes. Even in pre-digital days, it’s always been the case that as a manuscript grows cleaner, loitering mistakes become more obvious. So it is when moving from text on a screen to the same text on paper.

    Not to mention errors introduced by crashing software, misguided auto-corrections, and the fat fingers of everyone else who touches the file as it goes through the production process.

    And never mind the long hours we work despite knowing that the human brain performs best in 10-20 minute bursts of attention. Editing is too much like driving a long-haul semi truck–under deadlines, we stay at the wheel even though we’re sleep deprived, hungry, and distracted. We pass the rest areas without stopping for a break, ignore the complaints of our bleary eyes and aching backs, and plow on through the night, fueled on caffeine and sugar. Why is it a surprise, then, when we drift to the shoulder’s edge, over correct, and end up scattering 80,000 pounds of pickled mackerel across six lanes of interstate?

    Rich has it right–no more than 5 hours a day of actual editing. In fact, that may be too much.

    I need a walk….

    Comment by Will Harmon — July 31, 2013 @ 11:50 am | Reply

    • Wow, you marathon workers amaze me. I can’t sit still and concentrate for a full hour, so I have to schedule my work sessions like a chain of beads.

      Comment by Carolyn — July 31, 2013 @ 12:20 pm | Reply

      • I detest the 40-hour work week and the 8-hour day. They’re unreasonable and counterproductive, not just for editors. My current job requires those hours, however, nearly all of them spent hunched at a screen repairing comma splices and typos. Not something to aspire to….

        Comment by Will Harmon — August 1, 2013 @ 10:49 am | Reply

  6. Reblogged this on Chas Hoppe and commented:
    I love this article. The debate around error-free manuscripts is an interesting one, and not unlike a game of Pitfall. What this editor wisely points to, in the quest for perfection, is managing expectations. The ages-old adage, “You get what you pay for” rings especially true for editors working for budget- or timeline-conscious clients.

    Comment by choppyrocks — July 31, 2013 @ 11:50 am | Reply

  7. I’ve found that too much editing can actually introduce errors. Like the medical arts, editing’s first rule is to do no harm. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Too many so-called corrections are just rephrasing a sentence that was perfectly fine in the first place and has now managed the change the author’s intended meaning. Expertise in editing means knowing what *not* to change as well as what to change.

    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — July 31, 2013 @ 12:12 pm | Reply

  8. Isn’t this what galley proofs are for? So the author can spot and fix any missed corrections or introduced errors before publication? Mind you, I HAVE seen cases where the first thing noticed by the author when opening a copy right off the press IS a typo (in one case the spelling of the author’s name on the cover, obviously not the editor’s fault). I don’t think we will ever be free of Murphy’s Law.

    Comment by anansii — August 1, 2013 @ 3:50 am | Reply

  9. Great piece, Rich!

    Comment by MJ Devaney — August 1, 2013 @ 8:11 pm | Reply

  10. It’s not really so complicated. An editorial error is something that (a) is wrong and (b) was overlooked by mistake.
    Just answer this question: If you had noticed it in the final manuscript, after you handed it off to the publisher but before the work was printed, would you alert them to it? If yes, then count it as an error. And the later in the process you would try to have it corrected, the more serious the error.

    Comment by Shmuel — August 1, 2013 @ 8:45 pm | Reply

  11. The editor’s goal should be zero mistakes. However, writers often turn in error-laden work assuming that an editor will fix everything, rather than putting a bit more effort into turning in good writing to start with. The heavier the editing lift (editing v. rewriting), the more likely the editor will be pressed and miss something. Garbage in-garbage out.

    Comment by Lynne Finnerty — August 4, 2013 @ 7:13 pm | Reply

  12. You know what they say about cheap, fast, and good. You can only pick two. Great article and discussion!

    Comment by Cassandra — August 6, 2013 @ 3:59 pm | Reply

  13. This says it all: “It is unreasonable, I think, to demand perfection from someone else when you do not produce it yourself.”

    Comment by Sherrey Meyer — August 6, 2013 @ 6:55 pm | Reply

  14. When I started my editing career, the occasional typos clients found in my work me lost me sleep and had me trembling at the thought of ever taking another editing job. Even I thought I was somehow required to achieve perfection every time, despite the messy, carelessly written drafts I was working on. So I can see why authors think so… I’ve come to accept my “lack of perfection.”

    I suppose this is another way of saying I’ve come to accept myself as human, and that’s a very, very good thing.

    I’ll be linking to this article in my blog!

    Comment by Leslie Miller — August 7, 2013 @ 10:31 am | Reply

  15. Bravo for you! As an author and editor, I cringe when I hear, “Doesn’t it drive you crazy when you see an error!” My thought when I’m asked such a question: “‘Going crazy’ because of an error is overly dramatic and impractical.” When I first began, yes, any error or criticism bothered me. However, those of us in the business KNOW that errors occur and DO occur by the most prestigious authors, editors, and publishers. Thankfully, the aforementioned have managed to keep their sanity and continue to provide us with valuable knowledge
    .
    Yes, errors are troublesome; yet, it is my belief that ALL, or at least most of us, constantly strive to deliver quality, error-free outcomes. In other words, most errors are NOT the result of sloppy, careless, slipshod work.

    The aforementioned said, some errors are more problematic than others. For example, an error in medical or pharmaceutical or engineering or other such instructions could result in devastating outcomes. This is where more than one proof-reader and/or editor should be involved.

    We will not settle this debate in this blog; yet, I applaud your courage as many perceived “errors” are in fact geographical preferences and/or personal preference (allowing the author’s voice to be heard). In our global environment, the “one rule fits all’ dictum appears to be quite archaic.

    Comment by Cynthia Dunlevy — August 8, 2013 @ 11:44 am | Reply

  16. […] discussed the demand for perfection (see The Business of Editing: The Demand for Perfection) and the disconnect between expectation and reality. Not discussed then, but of equal importance, […]

    Pingback by Implied Promises & the Professional Editor | An American Editor — August 21, 2013 @ 4:02 am | Reply

  17. As a writer, I believe the demand for perfection is based in fear. “What if someone hates my book because I missed some obscure rule of grammar?” or to dig down a little further, “What if someone thinks I don’t know what I’m doing?” As writers, words are our tools. Would you trust a carpenter who didn’t know how to use a hammer properly? So, in a sense, we’re asking editors to save our reputations as well as our manuscripts. No pressure!

    Comment by Tricia Ballad — August 30, 2013 @ 7:52 am | Reply

    • oooooo yes! Validation is the tool I seem to bring out first with clients, even in my first exchange offering services. Your post caused multiple thoughts pop to the surface, but I will suppress the urge to share them and possibly spiral into one of those quirky tangent-based discussions. You know the kind…

      Comment by Maria D'Marco — August 30, 2013 @ 9:44 am | Reply

  18. […] is the folly of client expectations, which we discussed several months ago in The Business of Editing: The Demand for Perfection. More importantly, this is the folly of “professional” editors who affirmatively state […]

    Pingback by Tale of 3 Editors, a Manuscript, & the Quest for Perfection | An American Editor — November 18, 2013 @ 4:01 am | Reply


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