The Editor’s Nightmare

This week I want to quickly pick up on a subject that isn’t really spoken about.

It’s not a massive taboo, and it’s not a secret, but it just seems to get forgotten or swept under the carpet.

swept under the carpet

There’s a lot said in blogs and articles, and on social media, about how important editors are (which is true). And there are also many people picking up on mistakes found in books and in other written material. But there’s something that gets ignored by those outside of the publishing world, or maybe they just don’t know, or don’t care. And it can really add to the stress factor when you earn your living as an editor (or a proofreader for that matter).

When we edit, our suggestions are not set in stone. Most of the time these days, editors will work in Word with tracked changes on. This allows the author to see the changes made to the document, and to also look at the comments that we make with suggestions for the text. Editors invest a lot of time and mental energy on each project. We work to briefs set out by the author, or publisher, and do our utmost to make the document the best it can be within the briefs and time constraints.

But, and here’s the main point, our suggestions are just that. Authors and publishers who are paying clients are quite within their rights to reject suggestions and changes made by their editor. As editors, once the job has been done, we often have no way of knowing if our work has been rejected at the last moment. Even through rounds of communication with the author, at the twelfth hour, changes can be undone and suggestions rejected. I doubt there is an editor out there who has not had to face this fact at some point in their career. It even happens with indexers… I’ve had instances of a beautifully crafted (even if I do say so myself) index being changed after it has been submitted, accepted and paid for.

As you can imagine this can be quite demoralising for an editor. Most of the time our expertise is accepted and our suggestions are followed, but even cases of grammar and spelling can be rejected because the author doesn’t like the change or believes that their spelling is the correct version.

Strange as it may seem, errors can also be introduced after the editor has handed back the manuscript. An author can give their final manuscript a read, and make additions or changes right at the last minute. The unwary editor will have no knowledge of these potentially disastrous additions until someone brings it to the world’s attention.

editors nightmare
‘Hey, Gary… I managed to get a whole new section added just before they sent the book to the printers!’

It would be easy to say, when these things happen, that it’s best to just let it go and move on, but there’s always the worry in the back of your mind that your professional reputation can be tarnished. All it takes is one post-editing blunder.

I always recommend that a proofreader is taken on board to give a document that final look-over. They should be working on the final proofs of the book, and can highlight any errors, but even then problems may not be ironed out should the author want to keep their changes, or if time is running out. And often proofreaders are not even used if budgets are tight.

So what is the point of all my rambling?

There are many stages to a book’s production, and in any one of those stages errors can creep in. Editorial changes and suggestions can be rejected, and beyond explaining why changes should be made, an editor has no say in what will happen to their documents. In most cases our work is accepted, but in a few changes are ignored or errors can be introduced and a book can go to press.

It is rare, but it does happen.

It’s every editor’s nightmare.


9 Comments on “The Editor’s Nightmare

  1. Yes! It is every editor’s nightmare. Writers have a habit of ‘fiddling’ with their work ad nauseum. It’s their work so they have every right to do so; however, it is frustrating when they tell you this after you’ve edited the manuscript, and you know their final changes haven’t been checked. It’s an argument you’re not going to win – and probably shouldn’t get into. All you can do is explain why it’s not a good idea and hope they are wiser next time.

  2. It’s frustrating not to know … but then it’s also frustrating if you get a job you’ve worked on back to rework and you notice that loads of your suggestions have been ignored and there are errors in the text. Ugh!

  3. I read a very interesting article by a New Yorker’s editor who used to fight with an author on the usage of commas. Invariably, the author always prevailed with his unorthodox usage. I suppose it is a fine line: errors are errors but sometimes authors must feel the need to have the upper hand.

    • Yup, there’s a fine line between keeping the author’s voice and correcting spelling and grammar. You must never forget the blood, sweat and tears that an author has gone through to get their book editor or publication ready. There are also stylistic issues – what some people believe to be errors are in fact style choices. What get’s really frustrating though, is when books show real errors when the editor has been over-ruled. It can really look bad for us 😦

  4. How true! This is why we should never be too quick to say that a book has been ‘badly edited’.
    I was cringing (with recognition) as I read your post. The worst case ever (for me) was when two important errors were introduced at proof stage into a book I had previously copy-edited and in which I was credited as editor. The errors were serious enough that an errata slip was added to the published volume. Now everyone who sees that book probably assumes that the mistakes were mine. I’m quite ready to accept responsibility for my own errors, but oh, isn’t it galling to be blamed for someone else’s … A freelancer stands or falls by her/his reputation, so it’s more than hurt feelings that are at stake.

    • Oh how awful Carolyn! But I think it happens fairly frequently, and as freelance editors we are powerless. I hope you managed to move past that one quickly.

  5. Another frustration is that customers who leave reviews stating a book has been poorly edited might mean any one of a hundred different things, from there being misspellings and grammar gaffes to slow pacing or structure issues to simply not liking the characters. It’s become a catch-all criticism that can sting when a copy editor or proofreader has done an admirable job.

    • Totally! And many ‘errors’ are modern style choices. It’s an easy cover-all comment that’s difficult to address and still stay professional *sigh*

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