But not by me, of course

There’s no feeling quite like it. Full of excitement and anticipation, you open the first proper copy of your new book. And immediately, you spot a typo. Believe me: if you feel bad, spare a thought for your poor editor.

We hate mistakes. It’s our job to stop them happening, so when we make them ourselves, or let one slip through, we beat ourselves up about it for days. As someone who has paid a probably not-insignificant amount of cash to have your book edited, you’d be forgiven for feeling upset and annoyed. But before you go dashing off an enraged email to your editor,I have a startling revelation: Editors are not robots. They also aren’t proofreaders.

Error rates are a hot topic among editorial professionals. Some editors like to proclaim they have a certain error rate (and this is usually incredibly low, like 1%). I’ll say right now that I have no idea how they can come up with that number and I set very little store by it. I don’t trust anyone claiming they will definitely catch 99% of all errors. It’s bunkum, as far as I’m concerned. It all depends on the manuscript in question.

Let’s take an example. Most editors agree that they wouldn’t be happy with finding less than 95% of the mistakes. It’s a matter of professional pride, after all. That number isn’t static – it relies on a lot of variables. For example, I’d miss way more than 5% of errors if someone, for some unfathomable reason, decided I was a good bet to edit their book on mathematic formulas. And in a story that spans two paragraphs, I’d hope that my error rate was 0%! As we all know, no two manuscripts are alike in content or quality. As a rule of thumb, when I perform a line & copy-edit on a manuscript, I make upwards of 2,000 changes to the text. I’ve made as much as 6,000 sometimes. These aren’t all errors or corrections, of course; some of these are improvements in the form of rephrasing sentences or suggesting alternative words that are a better fit. Regardless, a lot of these changes will be correcting mistakes (which could be typos, or might be commas or apostrophes in the wrong place, or a word hyphenated incorrectly).

Let’s be generous and say there are 500 mistakes in a manuscript. If that sounds high to you, you’d be surprised! If I catch 95% of those, there are still 25 mistakes remaining in the text. If a manuscript has 1000 errors, there are 50 mistakes remaining, and so on. The more mistakes in the original manuscript, the more will remain. An editor might have performed a very heavy edit and made 6,000 changes, but missed something like ‘leech’ being used instead of ‘leach’ (full disclosure, I almost missed this myself in a recent job and only noticed at the last minute). That doesn’t wipe out the thousands of other mistakes they spotted and changes they made.

Perfection is impossible. I’ve seen some editors claim their finished product will be error-free. I’d love to have those kind of super powers. That would be even cooler than being able to be invisible! Sadly, you won’t ever get perfection. I recently read a best-seller which has been out for years. I found a couple of typos. This book has been through numerous reprints, undoubtedly a great deal of editorial intervention, and there were still some mistakes. Your book, out for a day and having gone through one editorial professional, is probably going to have more. That’s just life. You’ll never have a perfect product, although you should never stop trying (nor should your editor).

So when you spot that typo, take a deep breath. Go and change it. If a reader has pointed it out, grit your teeth and thank them. If you have the budget, get a proofreader. They might catch another 90-95% of the mistakes left behind. But most of all, don’t sweat it. A couple of typos won’t make or break your book. But all the other mistakes your editor caught? They just might have.