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.

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