A shiny new book arrived by courier. I appreciated its weight, admired the cover art, braved removing the cellophane wrap, and turned to the copyright page to check for my name. Then, I slid the book onto a shelf, where it will stay. Whenever I break my “don’t look at a finished project” rule, I invariably crack a book open at the one page with the lingering error. #faint
These are my other truths:
- No one is perfect.
- Not all choices are errors.
- Not all editors deal in error correction.
- Introducing errors is many times worse than leaving errors in.
So, what level of perfection do we ask of an editor? Considering that substantive editors don’t focus on error correction, let’s just consider copyeditors and proofreaders here.
If a piece is full of errors, even a 99% accurate editor will leave some errors behind: “We probably shouldn’t have missed [the misspellings],” Rich Adin said in one of his An American Copyeditor blog posts. “On the other hand, there were more than a dozen errors surrounding those missed spellings that we did catch.”
Correcting 95% of errors is the minimum expected of an editor, suggests Rosemary Shipton in her essay “The Mysterious Relationship: Authors and Their Editors” in the 2011 compilation Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text.
A grade of roughly 80% is required to pass any one of the four certification exams offered by the Editors’ Association of Canada. Though, about a third of any exam is about knowledge of the publishing process, not about correcting errors in a sample. Those certifications are meant to signal a standard of excellence for experienced editors, not just competence.
The best a human can do—even a professional proofreader—is 95% error detection, Dr. Panko of the University of Hawaii found in a review of studies on human error rates. And those studies tested obvious errors such as transposed letters or word choice (such as trail for trial), not errors in style or even in grammar.
I know a great deal of my colleagues will balk at the suggestion that we might leave a 5% error rate in a book. We editors strive for perfection. But just remember the excited dread you feel when opening any book you’ve edited. Those errors attack you from the first printed page you lay eyes on. It’s a kind of Murphy’s law.
Publishers make sure that several sets of eyes vet a product: a developmental editor, a stylistic editor, a copyeditor, and a proofreader might all go over the words with a finetoothed comb. Adin asserts that, in that piece he was reviewing, “some of the errors the author complained of should have been caught by a proofreader.” He doesn’t expect to be the only set of eyes on a project.
If it simply must be flawless,* having several proofreaders edit the piece would be a good idea. And you’ll need the time and the budget to make that possible.
Do you have quality guarantees in your contracts? In what ways do you allow editors (including yourself) to be imperfect? Have your say in the comments.