Lots of my clients ask me whether their manuscript will be “perfect” or “free from errors” after I’ve edited or proofread it. The answer to this – from me and perhaps any other editor who is being completely honest – will generally be along the lines of: “Probably not. I’ll aim for perfection but it’s difficult (or impossible) to achieve.” However, it’s not necessarily all bad news. This blog explores the issue further.

 

Standards in editing and proofreading

According to the CIEP: “An experienced professional proofreader, reading a copyedited typescript, should be able to spot and deal appropriately with at least 80% of all errors but at least 90% of typos – other things being equal.” So, if a manuscript that contains many errors is being proofread, it is likely that it will still contain quite a few errors afterwards (around 10% of a large number is still quite a large number).

Many authors that I work with are academics who have finished writing their manuscript and then sent it to me for “proofreading”. Therefore, the text has rarely been edited at all and as a consequence it generally contains a very large number of errors, particularly if English isn’t the author’s first language. In this situation, it is almost inevitable that the manuscript will still contain a number of errors after proofreading. While editors do tend to be perfectionist types, we are human and it can be very difficult indeed to keep track of things when making changes to the vast majority of sentences.

 

The traditional publishing process

It might be useful to highlight that getting a manuscript ready for publication through the traditional route can be a lengthy process; it isn’t usually a simple case of ‘write it, proofread it, publish it’. There are often many rounds of editing – such as developmental editing, line editing and copyediting – prior to the final proofreading stage, which can be considered as the final piece of quality control. Throughout this process, the text will gradually be getting polished and incrementally improved.

Books on shelves

This demonstrates that errors can persist throughout several rounds of editing, despite everyone’s best intentions even in some of the biggest bestsellers by the most famous authors. But this is all part of the process heading towards although not necessarily to perfection. To quote the CIEP once more: “No publication is likely to be good enough if it has not been edited. However, copyeditors do a lot more than pick up mistakes, so they may not catch all of them, especially if the material is complex, difficult or badly written.”

 

An edit is always likely to improve a manuscript, regardless of finding any “errors”

Aside from the issue of correcting typos etc in a manuscript, a good editor will also often be able to improve things by looking at aspects that don’t always come under the description of “errors”. For example, if a sentence is grammatically correct but still slightly unclear or can possibly be misconstrued, I might make a simple suggestion to improve the wording (depending on the scope of the work).

Also, editing will ensure that language, terms, names and abbreviations etc are all used consistently throughout. Depending on the nature of the project, these inconsistencies might not always be classed as errors as such – all errors aren’t equal – but the text will still benefit if they are addressed. The cumulative effect of minor problems can add up and detract from the message that the author is trying to put across.

In short, a good editor will very often be able to add value to a manuscript, regardless of the number of typos that are found.

 

An edited/proofread manuscript will usually be in a much better state afterwards – even if it does still contain errors

So, if copyediting/proofreading isn’t going to fix all of the faults in a manuscript, why bother getting it done? The answer is because the manuscript will be in a much better state afterwards. While there are differing views on the importance of correct grammar and spelling in this age of social media language, it is still a widely held view in publishing that editing is required: “Because people will judge you on the quality of what you put in front of them. Because people will not take you or your message seriously if it is unclear, inconsistent or poorly presented”, according to the CIEP.

An editor might not be able to deliver perfection but will certainly try to get you as close to it as possible.

Signpost for wisdom, not perfectionism

Want more information?

Please contact me if you’d like to discuss the particular requirements for perfection with your project.