Spend time in any book discussion group, and sooner or later the question of editing quality will be raised. The problem may be blamed on publishers, self-publishing authors or editors themselves, but everyone will have a story of a book or article in which the editing was sloppy or non-existent.
There is some truth to claims that editing is in decline. When publishers cut costs they may be unwilling to pay for the time required for careful and comprehensive editing. Self-publishing authors may not recognise the need for professional editing, but instead rely on automated tools or feedback from friends. Anyone can call themselves an editor, and not all ‘editors’ are equally skilled.
But not all ‘errors’ complained of are genuine, and not all of them of are the responsibility of an editor.
Many of the rules of English grammar you might have been taught in school – many years ago, when grammar was explicitly taught – can be described as zombies: they’re dead, but still walking around. These include:
- Don’t split an infinitive (because in Latin, infinitives can’t be split, so obviously they shouldn’t be split in English). Huh?
- Don’t end a sentence with a preposition – again because you can’t do it in Latin.
- A double negative creates a positive.
- And more – David Marsh, in the Guardian, offered a list of 10 grammar rules you can forget .
Some supposed errors are in fact simply variations in style. Does the author use an Oxford comma? Singular ‘they’? Single or double quotation marks? Is the work using US, British or Australian English, or some other variety?
All of these are style decisions, made by the author, the editor or the publisher. None of them are necessarily errors.
Authors and editors don’t always agree.
In most cases, an editor’s recommendations are just that – recommendations. An author’s work remains their own, and it is up to them whether to accept each edit or to keep their original words.
If you hire a fact-checker, they will at least attempt to verify every identifiable fact in your manuscript. This is time-consuming and therefore expensive. It is not included in most editing contracts.
You can expect a copy editor to alert you if you make a statement in chapter one of your book that contradicts one in chapter two. We may also check or query a statement that just sounds wrong, but if you’re not paying for fact checking, you are relying on the breadth of our general knowledge.
Then there are mistakes that genuinely are the responsibility of the editor – the ‘door jam’ instead of ‘door jamb’; the embarrassing reference to the ‘pubic service’. But remember that for every mistake we missed, there may have been a hundred you never saw, because we did catch them, did correct them, and did convince the author to accept them.
Editors are human and therefore fallible: forgive us!