Updated: Dec 14, 2022
"The greatest mistake a man can ever make is to be afraid of making one." - Elbert Hubbard
On my social media, I recently shared a very heartwarming blog post from a client who felt inspired to share our editing process and the steps we take prior to her final pre-publishing read-throughs. The post was entirely unexpected, and I was incredibly honored to see her say how much she enjoyed working with me when I'm fairly certain she might not have anticipated me seeing it. However, there was one caveat, which was immediately brought to my attention by other industry professionals who read the blog. She mentions having found an error—one error in 80,000 words—that somehow managed to slip through her rounds of self-editing and my combined round of line and copy editing. This author was in no way being disparaging. In fact, she is using it to highlight the importance of her advanced reading team, who are invaluable to any author's publishing journey. And while she acknowledges that we as a team are only human, that we make mistakes, I know what you might be thinking... An error! Gasp. But aren't editors supposed to be perfect? If you do your job correctly, shouldn't there be no errors in the finished novel?
And that, dear reader, is the myth. I dare say, it stems from the large influx of self-publishing authors in the last decade who have had to pay for professional editing out of their own pockets in order to compete with traditionally published works. When you're spending a few hundred to a few thousand, depending on the editor's credentials and expertise, it might seem self-explanatory to expect perfection. I agree that, on the surface, it makes absolute sense. However, this is actually an unrealistic and erroneous expectation.
In traditional publishing houses, books are handled by teams of editors—sometimes two to three—before it ever makes it to the final stage of proofreading. Obviously, self-publishing authors don't always have this luxury. Yet despite the number of editors who might look over a traditionally published work, errors still manage to slip past. Take J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, for instance. Potter has just been invited into Hogwarts and is shopping for his wizardry supplies in Diagon Alley. My research has shown that in the first edition of the novel, "1 want" was printed twice in that school supply list, instead of "1 wand." This wasn't a self-publishing author cutting corners. This wasn't an editor who lacked the expertise and skill to do their job correctly. This was a team of editors at a publishing house that has focused solely on children's books since 1920. With over 75 years of publishing experience behind them at the time of publication in 1997, they had a very obvious, glaring error in one of the most popular books of all time. But that wasn't all... Yet another error in the same book had Potter and Weasley in a "circular common room," yet they were in a "prominent corner" of that same room. Yet another error in the same book, different edition, has a typo on the back cover...in the book's title. Our horror greats have similar issues. There are 1988 prints of Stephen King's Misery on sale on eBay for close to $100 because of print errors. In some editions of HP Lovecraft's The Fiction, "naval prisoners" are referred to as "navel prisoners." Another popular series, The Hunger Games, has "say Haymitch" instead of "says Haymitch."
In Stephen King's The Green Mile, the movie adaptation version, Percy wipes his lips with his hand yet is wearing a straightjacket.
Developmental errors, formatting errors, print errors, copy editing errors...they're everywhere. And while they most likely do get corrected in later editions, the fact remains, they existed upon publication, even after multiple rounds of editing, multiple eyes on the project, and an incredible amount of expertise and effort. So what is a more reasonable expectation? In my research, it seemed the average for traditionally published novels with an editing team is three to five mistakes per 100,000 words to an average of three errors for every 10,000 words for self-publishing authors using only one editor. And many professional freelance editors are closer to the traditional publisher's error rates. Plus, one thing to consider is that errors are subjective. A missing word, an incorrect word, or a character's name being confused are going to be more startling for a reader and more obvious than a missing comma. All of them might still be errors, but whereas a couple of them take a reader out of the story, the other simply allows the reader to continue by without pause. One might also affect the reader's overall perspective on the novel more than the other. A reader who is taken out of the story five times recognizes that as more of an issue than a reader who skimmed over an ill-used comma. Same number of errors, entirely different reaction. While I do think it is absolutely important to hold self-publishing novels to the same standard we hold traditional novels to, I think it's equally as critical that we don't place unobtainable expectations of perfection on them or the professionals they hire simply because they dared to go it alone. It creates undue stress on someone who is very likely managing all of their publishing efforts themselves, without the benefit of a team like a traditional publishing house has. There's also the issue of editors sending over edits that our authors have the choice to accept or not. If an author ultimately feels that they liked their wording better—whether it's grammatically correct or fits the tone and pacing of the story in the editor's expertise—that author can choose not to accept those edits and publish as is. If we're going to exist within the same space as creators, we have an obligation to our community and our industry to educate ourselves, to not jump to conclusions, and to reign in our judgment. I'm by no means advocating a pass for authors who choose to publish without an editor or without effective self-editing. Quite the contrary—I think an editor, be it a solo professional or a team, is absolutely necessary to an author's continued success. And likewise, if an author were to find multiple errors on a page their editor returns, then that edit has been done poorly, and the author should speak to the editor about rectifying the situation. But I have said at least a hundred times before that if Stephen King, the master of horror himself, needs an editor, then absolutely so do the rest of us. And if Stephen King, with all of his opportunities and capabilities, has hired editors who have continuously let just a few errors slip through in his novels throughout the years, I dare say that every other editor in the industry should be allowed to fall in with those same standards, shake the bonds of unrealistic perfection expectations, and focus on what we do best—making your stories great. After all, we're only human. Please be sure to subscribe to my newsletter for a free copy of my 10 Self-Editing Tips for the Fiction Author brochure, coming in the next couple of weeks.
In the meantime, check out the following helpful guides: Three Characteristics of Strong Fiction Writing