An American Editor

November 4, 2013

Business of Editing: One Pass, Two Pass(es)

It was said in a post on LinkedIn, that “real editing” requires two passes. I have to admit, I was confused by this affirmative statement. Why does “real editing” require two passes and not three passes? Or five passes? Or some other arbitrary number? Or even more than one pass?

Every professional editor knows that the more times you go over a manuscript, the more errors you will find, so what makes two the magic number? The truth is that there is no magic number. One pass can be as effective as two passes; everything depends on what the editor does in each pass over a manuscript; that is, the purpose of each pass.

There is one other consideration, which was not discussed in the LinkedIn post: compensation. For how many passes are you being compensated?

Most publishers and packagers recognize that they are paying for a single pass and do not expect more than that single pass. When they want more than one pass, the price rises.

Authors are often unaware of the issue. However, much of the complaint about poor editing is attributable to an insufficient number of passes by the particular editor. Some editors are more highly skilled than other editors and can accomplish more in a single pass than other editors can accomplish in multiple passes. Of course, editors who make use of editing tools (primarily macros) can resolve many of the issues that would normally be addressed in the first pass by use of these tools.

In the end, the number of passes comes down to the money. Each pass costs money and the more passes there are, the higher the price. One formula for charging for multiple passes used by those who charge by the page or the project is to charge 50% more for a second pass and 25% more for a third pass than the charge for the first pass. For example, if the first pass costs $1,000, a second pass would cost another $500, and a third pass another $250. With each pass it should go more quickly, thus the lower price for each subsequent pass, although that is not always true.

The issue is who bears the cost of additional passes? Some editors lack confidence in their ability to do a good job in the absence of multiple passes and thus are willing to absorb the cost of doing multiple passes. Other editors have learned how to meet or exceed the quality that would result from two or three passes in a single pass and are unwilling to absorb the cost of additional passes.

The unaddressed question is whether there is a true need for additional passes? This really depends on the skill and experience of the editor, as well as what tools the editor uses and how the editor uses those tools. Advocates of multiple passes take the position that additional errors are found on the subsequent passes and that alone demonstrates the need. But that is true even after a fourth or fifth pass, so if the rationale is that subsequent passes result in catching more errors, an editor who takes that position should continue doing passes until there are no more errors — whether that means three passes or 20 passes.

How many times have we read a book that has been reviewed by editors, authors, and proofreaders and still found errors? What can’t be pinpointed is how many passes are needed on a particular project in order to make the project 100% error-free. (This assumes that 100% error-free editing is possible, which, in my experience, it is not.) Are two passes or 12 passes needed? How many passes are also needed by the proofreader?

At some point there must be a reality check. Every time a pass occurs, it is either costing the editor or the client money. The editor who does multiple passes and does not charge for each pass quickly reaches the point of earning less than minimum wage. If the cost is being passed on to the client, the client may be unwilling to absorb the additional cost in the absence of a showing of significant return.

And significant return is the albatross.

The question that has to be asked is this: How likely is it that the proofreader will find the errors that the editor will find doing a subsequent pass? If the likelihood is high, then the client is overpaying by paying for a subsequent pass or the editor is losing money in the absence of a significant return. If the likelihood is low, then I would question the value of the editor’s original edit and/or of the proofreader.

One thing we haven’t done is defined what constitutes a pass over a manuscript. For some editors, the first pass is mechanical: coding, correcting dashes, eliminating extra spaces, and the like. For other editors, passes only refer to actual editing, not the mechanical stuff that can as readily be accomplished by macros or while editing.

If we agree that a pass means editing and not the mechanical aspects of the project, then one-pass editing is practical and doable, especially if a professional proofreader will be reviewing the material. If the mechanical constitutes a pass, then a two-pass edit is needed — the first pass to do the general mechanical aspects followed by a second pass of editing. In this case, the first pass should not, I think, incur a separate charge.

This illustrates another point: the need for clarity when using terms. Here we’ve gone through most of the essay and each of us has understood “pass” to mean something specific, but not necessarily what I intended it to mean within the context of this discussion. Where we may have disagreed before, now that “pass” has been defined, we may agree or continue to disagree, but we are doing so using the same base.

Ultimately, as this essay is about the number of editing passes required, there is no specific number required. How many editing passes a project requires or should receive depends on the editor’s skill and experience, whether the material will be professionally proofread, and the client’s willingness to pay for additional passes. I am of the firm conviction that no professional editor should routinely pay for subsequent passes herself. If a client is only willing to pay for a one-pass edit, then the editor is obligated to do the best the editor can in one pass.

Having said all that, some editors plan on multiple passes and have that already built into their fee. In such instance, multiple passes are justifiable because the client has agreed to pay for them by accepting the editor’s fee that includes one or more subsequent passes. Ultimately, professional editors need to provide the client with the best the editor can do within the parameters set by the client and without the editor absorbing costs that should be borne by the client.

Do you agree? How many editing passes do you do? Do you absorb the cost of subsequent passes or are they built into your base fee?

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