How accurate are editors?
Updated: Jul 19, 2021
You just got your edited manuscript back from your editor, and as you’re reading back through, you notice that there are still some mistakes left over. Did your editor do a bad job? Is your editor a bad editor?
Aren’t editors supposed to catch all the mistakes in a book?
It’s understandable to be a bit concerned when you find mistakes in your edited manuscript. Professional editing isn’t cheap, after all! But before you send your editor a disparaging email about the horrible work they did, let’s discuss the reality of editorial accuracy.
A 95% error catching rate is a good basic benchmark.
In other words, if your editor misses 5% of errors, they’ve still done a good edit, and you don’t have to be concerned that you’ve been ripped off.
Just to give you an idea of what this actually looks like when editing a book, let’s take a look at the stats for one of my recent edits (*stats are rounded for simpler math):
Book length: about 60,000 words, or a little less than 250 pages
Number of edits: a little less than 1,400 (not counting comments)
Number of comments: a little over 200
(This is a pretty typical medium copyedit at about 6 edits per page—so not super error-filled, but not super clean, either.)
So if we’re going by a good accuracy rate of 95%, then it would be acceptable if I had missed 74 errors in that manuscript (which translates to about one error every three pages). Of course, it pains my little perfectionist heart to think that I might have missed even one error, but realistically, I also know that I probably missed at least a few. I strive for perfection, and I often get close, but I never do get all the way there.
But let’s say that I did miss exactly 74 errors, and the author hired a proofreader to find all the ones I left. With the same math as before, it would be a good edit if the proofreader missed four of the errors that I left. This means that, unless the author hired one last person to check for remaining errors, the book would be published with four errors in it. That’s just the publishing business.
And that’s why it’s best to have as many eyes on the manuscript as possible before publication, from your beta readers and critique partners to the editor(s) you’ve hired to your ARC readers. That’s why publishing houses have line editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders, not to mention the author, the typesetter, and the designer, all working on books before they’re printed. That’s why even after having all those editors, you’ll still find one or two mistakes in pretty much every published novel.
But there are factors that can affect this error catching rate.
When considering the 90-95% rate that I listed above, you also have to consider some factors outside of the editor’s skill level that may raise or lower this rate.
1. The number of errors in the starting manuscript. If a manuscript arrives at an editor’s desk with a high number of errors, then the error catching rate will go down. (Read a more thorough explanation of this in this blog post.) If you’re looking for the most accurate edit possible, then you’ll want to edit your manuscript thoroughly yourself before sending it to your editor.
2. Tight deadlines. A tight deadline means that an editor can’t spend as much time on the manuscript as they normally would. This naturally results in fewer errors being caught. If you are serious about having as few errors as possible in your manuscript, then plan ahead and give your editor plenty of time to do a thorough job on the edit.
3. Edit type. If you’ve requested a proofread when your manuscript really needs a copyedit, or even a line edit, then the editor will not be able to fix as many errors as they would otherwise. Proofreading, for example, is typically for correcting basic grammar and formatting errors left over from previous editing. A proofread usually doesn’t cover extensive sentence rewrites, and the editor will have to ignore those errors while proofreading. Make sure you know what type of edit your manuscript needs so that you can get the fullest possible edit from your editor.
(**Update July 2021: As an experiment, I've changed the names of my services! You can still get copyediting and proofreading, just under different names.)
Also, some “errors” aren’t actually errors.
It’s important to remember that some “errors” that readers find after the editor aren’t actually errors at all.
Some are differences of opinion. For example, the editor suggested adding a comma, and the reader thinks that no comma is needed, but the sentence is correct whether the comma is there or not—it’s simply a matter of taste.
Some are conventions that are out of date. For example, you may have learned in school not to split infinitives. (In other words, “to boldly go” is bad, while “to go boldly” is fine.) In truth, this is also not a grammar rule, but rather an old convention that came from a desire to make English stick more to Latin structure. It usually has no negative effect on the meaning of the sentence, and so there’s nothing wrong with using it in the majority of cases.
Some are mindful choices that are made for the specific context. For example, maybe your character is from Canada or the northern part of New England in the US, and they drop their prepositions. So they say “I’m done it” instead of “I’m done with it.” To be true to your character, you and your editor both keep these “errors” in the book, but your readers may flag them as mistakes regardless.
And finally, some are more recent changes in grammar that not everyone has accepted yet. For example, recently it’s become common to say “because [insert noun].” (Which some linguists are now calling “prepositional because.”) So when your character says, “I never skip breakfast, because bacon,” your editor will probably leave that alone (or maybe leave a comment asking if it’s intentional), while some of your readers may call it a mistake.
So don’t panic if you or your readers find a few remaining errors after your editor’s gone over your manuscript. If your editor has done an otherwise good job, finding and correcting a grand majority of the errors in the book, then there is nothing to worry about—you’ve received a good edit. If, on the other hand, the editor has missed a lot of errors or has even added errors that weren’t present before (a major editorial sin), then that is true cause for concern and worth communicating with your editor about.
Do you have any questions or concerns about my edits or editorial accuracy in general? Feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org!