Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Imperfect Editors

A recent post on an author forum caught my attention and generated many comments from other writers as well. Here’s the post:

I am so pissed off right now. I spent $500 on an editor and caught errors. In the past I had edited my stories and then published them, but I kept hearing how good it is to have an editor and thought I would save some editing time. The problem? It's not the first time it's happened. I bartered services with two other people (who supposedly were good at editing) and had the same thing happen. It's just this time around, I thought if I paid a professional, then I would get better service, you know? Does anyone else have similar experiences, do you have a good editor who catches everything, or do you do fine on your own?

Editors are not perfect, and no single editor can catch everything in an 80,000-word document. Which is why books need to go through an editing/proofreading process that involves many reads. What was most interesting to me was in the comments. Several authors posted vague references to the editor “correcting the situation.”

My question is: What does that mean? How does an editor compensate a client who is unhappy with the level of mistakes? Do you offer to read/edit again for free? What if the book has already gone to print? Do you offer money back?

My second question is: What is an acceptable level of errors? Do you measure it per page, per total word count?

I haven’t encountered this problem yet, but I’m doing more and more fiction editing and I’d like to know how others have handled this. Authors and editors, tell us what you think.


L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist and editor and is the author of the Detective Jackson mysteries, The Sex Club and Secrets to Die For. Her new novel, Thrilled to Death, will be released in August. She also loves to edit fiction and works with authors to keep her rates affordable. Contact her at:
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  1. This guy sounds like he has a different view of editors than I do. He seems to want the editors to do the work for him (e.g. "save some editing time"), but in my experience, critiquers of all levels and pay-grades are there to catch things you can't catch yourself.

    Sending someone a manuscript with errors I could have caught is a waste of their time and mine (since I still have to fix it anyway). At least that's my experience.

  2. I paid for an editor and she does have tiny mistakes. But no one is perfect so I'm ok with it.

    Steamy Darcy

  3. When using a disk utility to fix a computer you end up with a list of issues that need to be addressed. But if you stop there you're in hot water. Any computer tech will tell you that these issues may have been masking other problems, and that you should now run the utility again. Fix problems. Run again. And on, until there are no more problems.

    My frustration as an editor is that I will see a manuscript once. Who knows what shape it's in when the client deems it finished? I don't. They may have taken some suggestions and ignored others for reasons I will never know, leaving the characters half-developed, info dumps ensconced, and the climax unfulfilling.

    Yet the mistake they'll pick up and hold you responsible for is inconsistent capitalization of a term they created. I have a larger view of "mistakes." And what you seem to be referring to here is proofreading, not editing. I have a different price for proofreading--and if I have heavily edited something I am not the person to proofread it. As a co-creator of the work I am now as blind to the errors as the author is.

    My question is: do most of you editors get a second editing pass at the same material, or do you writers resubmit to the editor for a second pass? And is this included in the price, or do you pay extra?

  4. I've experienced it both ways - an editor who was fantastic and missed very little and one who missed a lot.

  5. Kathryn, I have exactly the same frustrations. Must be the born-again teacher in me, to want to see the assignment so I can check to make sure the student made corrections. LOL.

    I do a lot of first-reads for authors, often before a major revision, and I'm usually not the only one in the critique group. In that scenario, the author considers all the comments, and accepts/rejects to his comfort level.

    As a paid editor, I should be getting a pretty clean manuscript, and a $500 edit usually buys 2-3 read-throughs. I find, though, that authors who pay an independent editor are often sending manuscripts that really need substantive edits. They have major changes to make before the story is ready for a line edit or proofreading. So the author has paid for the first edit, and really should pay for a second edit (and maybe less-costly proofing) to catch the typos. The latter is what most often causes the complaints from casual readers.

    That said, I just checked out a book for pleasure reading from one of my fave writers - famous author - and couldn't get past the first few dozen pages. In one paragraph, the name "Rosie" was used where "Rae", another character, should have been. A few pages later, Roise appeared.

    Now that's annoying. I went on to the next book. ;) It's not a good thing when you lose a reader due to sloppy editing.


  6. I'm more concerned with catching continuity errors than typos. I have crit partners and readers for that. I know editors aren't perfect; I've worked with a fair number of them, but I still ask someone to do the final read-through because things sneak by.

  7. I'm struggling with this issue in a slightly different way. I'm currently working through an intensive self-editing of the third draft of my novel. The publisher is offering an editor (for whom I will have to pay), and said editor is described as one who will look primarily at "spelling, punctuation, and grammar."

    Now here's the thing. I spent 10 years teaching high school English, back in the day when we actually taught writing and grammar. Then I had a full career as a tenured history professor at a high-end SLAC. Any idea how many years I spent correcting "spelling, punctuation, and grammar"?

    I keep hearing the warnings about lawyers who try to defend themselves in court, but I still think I see more errors and am harder on my own writing than any editor could be. Am I totally deluded, or is my reaction a reasonable one?

  8. Editing is such a BIG job! I think each contract needs to be very detailed so both parties are happy.

  9. This is becoming such a significant issue for authors now that more of them are going the self-pub route. It used to be that a book went through the self-edit by the author. Then a comprehensive edit by the house editor. Then the final proofing and line-editing.

    So that is the system I suggest to a new client. Let me help with the self-edit, which includes the comprehensive edit. Then I can do a line edit. Of course, the line edit is an additional charge. I also tell the author that it is their responsibility for the final version and checking to make sure it is perfect - or as close to perfect as one can get.

  10. Carolyn, one thing every working copy editor will tell you is that no matter how good we are as editors of spelling, grammar and punctuation, when we *write*, we too need copy editors. Writers are too close to what they read to see every error. And that's not to even begin to get into the difference between correcting work as a teacher and editing manuscripts as a copy editor.

  11. I still want to know how writers handle a situation if they're not pleased with the editor's work.

    L. Diane, what did you do about the editor who missed lots of things?

  12. I agree - you're just too close to your work to do your own final edits. It's simply too easy to overlook the same mistake over and over because your mind compensates for missing and incorrect "stuff". That happens even after a long break from the work. If you're on deadline, no matter how good you are, you're begging for trouble if you don't have fresh eyes to take a look at that writing.

  13. Agree with Dani and Stephanie re: Carolyn. In the final polish of my most recent manuscript, I found typos that had been there through six major revisions, having been read over 30 times by 15 different sets of eyes (including some very anal sets -- teachers, authors... mothers).

    Or think of major published works, which have been gone over and over again by professional editors and copy editors, but still have typos. It's virtually impossible to catch everything.

  14. I'm wondering what he wanted done with this manuscript. Did he want errors corrected? Or did he expect the editor to rewrite for him? There's a big difference between the two.

    Straight From Hel

  15. As an extremely conscientious freelance manuscript editor, I've edited about 22 book manuscripts, most of them fiction, and have had nothing but glowing testimonials from my clients.

    I love my work and put my heart and soul into my editing, getting right into the storyline and characters, and I'm really hoping this person's negative experience won't deter other writers from seeking the services of a freelance editor for their manuscript.

  16. I edit things to the best of my ability. If someone else reads it and catches even one tiny mistake that I missed, the writing will be better. It doesn't matter if they catch every single flaw or not, the ones they catch have still made it better than what I started with.

  17. Hold your horses, everyone! There are different kinds of "editors." A line editor or content editor is too busy focusing on the material to catch every typo or grammatical error. That is not their job. A copyeditor is paid to catch all of those errors - AFTER a line editor makes sure the text is all in order. It sounds lime this author expected all of the above for $500, which is ridiculous.

  18. Those are the old-fashioned editors in publishing houses. Independent editors have to wear all the editing hats, and even though we don't do all the jobs in one pass, we can and do everything from book doctoring to line editing. As well as keeping up with language changes at Urban Dictionary. ;)I find one of my biggest challenges is not spending more hours on a manuscript than I'm getting paid for. I think all indy editors do anyway, just because the services tend to overlap depending on quality of manuscript.

  19. I am an editor who was recently told to "take it easy" when I reported how long it was taking me to go through a first (and, I'm afraid, only) read of a 300 page manuscript that had not only numerous grammatical issues but deviated significantly from the style the author said he was following. I recently let go of it after secretly (that is, off the clock) going through a second time to catch the stuff I missed the first time because I was focusing on the horrendous instead of the simply bad. Yes, there are errors; no, they just plain didn't want to pay me for the work that would have been required to catch them all. "Nuff said.

  20. Good points, all of you. We freelance manuscript editors should form a sort of loose collective to compare notes, pass on tips and hints, and maybe also pass on jobs that aren't "up our alley."

    I'm sure we all work differently, and charge differently. And charge by the pass (run-through) or not, etc. Some charge by the page or by the hour. I charge by the word - which varies, of course, depending on how much work the manuscript needs. But it's still not a perfect system.

  21. I lead an editing team of three, and at least two of us work on every manuscript. Much of the editing we do ends up falling somewhere between heavy copyediting and ghostwriting. We charge according to the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) guidelines, and we do it twice--once at the rate for developmental or substantive or whatever-is-needed rate and a second time at the proofreading rate (the number of words per page and number of pages per hour are included in the guidelines). This may be a bit expensive for the writer who chooses not to self-edit or who lacks that capability, but that person will end up with a press-ready manuscript that isn't going to be one more bad book to hit the marketplace if the author chooses to self-publish, independently publish, or go through a small press that does not include "professional" editing services. Does this mean we catch everything? No, but we catch the vast majority of the problems, and we fix them.

    An interesting point was raised L. J. Sellers: how do we handle an unhappy writer who feels that our editing was poor or didn't in some other way meet the writer's needs?

    First, we work directly with most authors (unless we've contracted to do a job for a publisher who doesn't encourage that--which is more difficult). We edit chapter-by chapter and bring the writer into the loop in the beginning, so we establish an immediate rapport and develop a strong "feel" for what the writer wants and needs. As a result, we have almost no complaints about the quality or extent of our editing. But if we did--and if the complaints were legitimate--we would undoubtedly refund at least part of the money or make some other arrangement that satisfied the author and was still fair to us.

    Carolyn, how I wish the writers I work with had your background in grammar and punctuation! Just keep this in mind: while capitalization and punctuation are very important elements of a good book, they go hand-in-hand with character and plot development, continuity, flow, effective dialogue, and so much more to create a GREAT read. Taking a book from concept to completion to bookstore shelves is a multi-faceted process, and skipping any one of its elements is to short-change yourself and your book. As Dani Gee pointed out, writers are too close to their work to do an effective final edit.

    The blog post on May 25 addresses the issue of who REALLY is a competent editor and invites your comments. You might like to review it and explore this topic further. As Maryann Miller said, "This is becoming such a significant issue for authors."

  22. Thanks for that info, Linda. Very interesting! I like the idea of a team of editors, as I do it all myself, starting with a developmental or substantive edit, or at least a thorough copyedit, and ending with proofreading.

    I also work with the author as we go along, editing the manuscript in sections of 2-5 chapters, and sending them back as I go, along with comments. Often the writer will go ahead and incorporate my suggestions into future sections before I get to them, so I'm not suggesting the same things over and over, like "loosen up your dialogue" or "develop your characters more" or "reduce the frequent point of view shifts."

    I'm starting to think I should read the whole thing from beginning to end first, but they don't pay me enough for the time it would take! So I read through each section and look for bigger issues, and, if I thinkt they're serious enough to be "deal breakers" with an agent or publisher, I get the writer to revise or rewrite that section, then start again. In that case, I don't do the proofreading until the revisions are done.

    Jodie -


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