My book, The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper, was recently published. Its making makes for an interesting tale about the quest for perfection.
Most books are subject to three limitations: one editor (chosen from a range of experience), limited editing budget, and short schedule. In contrast, The Business of Editing had three very experienced professional editors, essentially an unlimited editing budget, and no set time by which the editing had to be completed. In other words, from an editorial perspective, it was the dream project.
If I was to present this scenario to forums that were made up of noneditors — and even forums made up of some/certain editors — the comments would be the same: the book should be “error-free,” with various meanings attached to “error.” After all, there are multiple sets of eyes looking at each word, sentence, and paragraph, looking multiple times, and no schedule pressure; consequently, “perfection” — which I assume is synonymous with error-free — should be achieved.
Alas, even with three professional editors, no schedule pressure, and no budget worries, perfection is nearly impossible to achieve.
There are many reasons why perfection is not achievable even under such “perfect” circumstances, yet I think the number one reason is that one editor’s error is not another editor’s error.
In the editing of The Business of Editing, there were numerous exchanges concerning language and punctuation, which are the meat of editing. Spelling is important, but a professional editor isn’t focused on spelling. True spelling cannot be ignored; whether reign is correctly spelled is important. But spelling as spelling is not the key; the key is knowing which is the right word — is it rain, rein, or reign — which is why a professional editor does not rely on spellcheckers; they know that doing so often leads to embarrassment. If the correct word is reign but the word used is rain, rain is correctly spelled — it is just the wrong word.
The “real” editorial issues are word choice, coherence, grammar/punctuation — the things that can make for interesting discussion among professional editors. And such was the case with The Business of Editing. I don’t recall an issue of spelling arising, although it may have; what I do recall was the discussion over punctuation and wording. It is this discussion that demonstrated to me that there can be no perfection in editing.
We were three editors with at least two, and sometimes three, different opinions. (It was nice, for a change, to be the powerhouse. As the author, I got the deciding vote.) It is not that one opinion was clearly wrong and another clearly right; it was, almost always, that each opinion had merit and was correct. On occasion, one opinion was more correct, but on no occasion was an opinion incorrect in the sense that there would be universal agreement among professional editors that implementing the opinion would be tantamount to creating error.
Sometimes consensus could be reached; at other times, each of us stood firm. Yet in no instance was one of us “wrong.” Which brings us back to the matter of perfection.
How can we judge perfection when perfection cannot be pinned down? Given two equally valid opinions, how can we say that one leads to perfection and the other to imperfection? We can’t.
It is true that if all else were equal, using reign when it should be rein can be pointed to as clear error and imperfect editing. Reign, rain, and rein are three distinct things and one is not substitutable for the other. But if the correct one is used and is correctly spelled (i.e., reign and not riegn), then we must look elsewhere for imperfection and that elsewhere takes us down the path of opinion. (Of course, the question also arises if the correct word is rein but it is spelled rain, is it a misspelling or incorrect word choice? I would think that the latter is more problematic than the former.)
Is The Business of Editing perfect? With three highly skilled professional editors perusing it (and let’s not forget the eyes of the many professional editors who read the essays when they were originally posted on An American Editor), the expectation would be, “yes, it is perfect.” Alas, it is not. It is imperfect because there are elements whose grammar and construction are reasonably questionable.
This 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 that they provide “perfect” editing or who declare that x number of errors are acceptable. The flaw is that the editors and clients who make these demands assume that only their opinion has any validity, that contrary opinions are inherently erroneous.
Consider this issue: An author writes, “Since taking aspirin thins blood, at least one aspirin should be taken daily.” The question is this: Is “since” correctly used? In my view, it is not; “since” should be replaced by “because” and “since” should be limited to its passing-of-time sense. However, a very legitimate argument can be made that its use in the sentence is perfectly good usage today. What we really have are two opinions of equal merit, neither being inherently wrong.
But if you are of the camp that believes correct usage demands “because,” how likely are you to declare the sentence (expand to manuscript) perfect or error-free? Clearly, those in the “since” camp would consider it perfect/error-free. Consequently, we either have an imperfect manuscript or an error-free manuscript.
Which is it in the quest for perfection? The truth of the matter is that both can be perfect and both can be imperfect — it just depends on who is doing the grading, which is why the quest for perfection is never-ending.
Consequently, depending on whose camp you are in, The Business of Editing is either perfectly or imperfectly edited.