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Perfection versus Excellence: Why there might still be errors in your book after an edit

You’ve written a book and can’t wait to share it with readers. But you realize the importance of having another set of eyes on it, so you hire an editor. When the editing is done, you are upset to find that there are still errors remaining. How did this happen? Did you pick the wrong editor? Shouldn’t an editor be expected to catch every error? That is what you’re paying them for, right?

First, no editor will catch every error. If they promise to do so, they probably aren’t being realistic. Even in the days when published books went through several editors and proofreaders, errors still slipped through. Editors are human, after all. While it might be possible to produce an error-free book with enough passes and enough different eyes on it, that quickly becomes cost-prohibitive, especially for a self-publishing author. So, some errors will remain. And a few small errors shouldn’t impact the success of your book. But how many missed errors is acceptable?

The Society for Editors and Proofreaders states “a good copyeditor picks up 80% of errors; a good proofreader picks up 80% of what's left.” That seems a bit low to me. The number bandied about in editing circles is a 95% catch rate. But this will depend on a number of factors. First of all, what type of edit did you pay for? A developmental edit addresses story-level issues and won’t fix errors at all. A line edit addresses the craft of writing—the flow of sentences, the use of words—so the focus is at the sentence level. While line editors will also correct as many errors as they can, this focus at a higher level precludes a directed focus on objective errors. I always recommend that my clients follow up a line edit with a copy edit, which focuses more specifically on things like spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors and typos.

Another thing that greatly affects how many errors will remain is how many errors there were to begin with. I sometimes make thousands of edits in a manuscript. If there are 20 errors remaining, that may seem like a lot, but if I corrected 3000 errors, that’s a 99.3% catch rate. I’d be pretty darn happy with that number as an editor. Getting that manuscript as clean as you can before sending it to an editor can really help. If we assume your editor will catch 95% of errors, only 5 errors would remain if the original manuscript had 100 errors in it. Not perfect, but not bad. But if that original document had 1000 errors? Now we’re left with 50 errors. That’s more significant.

It’s understandable that when you pay for an edit, you want your manuscript as close to perfect as is possible. And every editor I know wants that too. Even though we know that perfection is impossible, we still hate every missed error. And we do everything possible to avoid them. When I am editing a manuscript, I always include two passes to catch as many errors as possible. I use a variety of resources to help me catch those hard-to-find errors, from Word’s spell-check function to professional software programs designed specifically for editors. I keep a detailed style sheet where I note decisions made about things like spelling, hyphenation, and capitalization as well as the spelling of places and characters’ names so I can maintain consistency throughout the book. I will do everything I can to catch all the errors in your book.

So, perfection isn’t possible. But you can get close with a few simple steps. Get a sample edit from the editors you are considering hiring to make sure they do a thorough job. Make sure you discuss with editors what type of edit you would be paying for. Once you’ve hired an editor, provide them with the cleanest manuscript you are capable of providing. And pay for as many levels of editing as you can afford. If you need a line edit, get a copy edit afterwards if your budget allows. If you’ve hired a copy editor, find a proofreader to follow up behind them. If that isn’t in your budget, go through the manuscript again yourself and have others you trust do so as well (preferably someone with demonstrated skill in this area). As Vince Lombardi said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” With a great editor on your team, and realistic expectations, you can publish a book that makes you proud.

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