Thursday, 19 September 2013

O.M.G...Is that an Editing Mistake?

I'm currently caught up in the sometimes frustrating world of editing my next book, A Tasty Little Treat, due out in October as part of Edible Delights Vol 3. Anyway, I've decided to start a discussion about it, not specifically my edits, but editing in general. 

A while ago I wrote this blog for Savvy Authors. It's a really great site if you are an author or aspiring one - but back to the topic at hand. As my edits drag on, I'm once again pondering the process, the finished work and in particular the language we use, in general, and how we use it. So, it seems only fitting to share the post with you all now.

O.M.G... Is that an editing mistake? 
Original post written by Jan Graham for Savvy Authors, August 3rd 2013.

I've noticed lots of comments and discussions on social media sites recently regarding how books are edited, particularly in the current e-book age. I've been reading for a long time and can actually remember the days when it was virtually unheard of to read a book with even one spelling mishap. Times have changed though. I know authors who have been writing far longer than me who say editing is not what it used to be. And I've sat in forums where readers have become outraged if there is even one minor mistake within a story.

As a reader I sympathize that some mistakes are so glaring, I wonder how they ever made it through the editing process unnoticed. One disastrous example comes to mind where a popular romance author’s book, released by the publisher with one vital scene missing. Now, when I say vital, I mean a portion of the cliffhanger ending. Unfortunately, it was the author left to clean up the mess and cop the fury of readers, rather than the publisher. The deleted portion was made available online for readers to print out, along with an apology and explanation. Apparently the scene was removed for editing and somehow never made it back into the book prior to publication. No blame was laid at anyone’s feet but the furor from readers included statements like - I’ll never buy one of her books again. 

Just to clarify what I’m talking about today, before I go much further, I’m not advocating we don’t need to edit our work, of course we do but what I am advocating is this. Do we need to be so pedantic about the occasional perceived error that slips through at the point of publication?

From a writing point of view, editing mistakes are one of my greatest concerns and recently I've begun to wonder if that concern is unfounded. I’m not talking about errors in regard to the monumental stuff up referenced to above, but the regular easily missed things. Spelling errors, misplaced punctuation, that sort of thing, and believe me they are picked up on once a book reaches the point of sale. The fact is, I don't know how mistakes can be eradicated and for those editors and publishers who pick up on every error, producing near perfect manuscripts for the writers who create them, I applaud you. It's not an easy task.

When I write I often get to the point where I don't see errors any more. My mind is so consumed with the story and characters, the manuscript has been read, re-read, corrected and reworked for what seems like a million times. I've changed sentence structures and made so many alterations that the words often appear correct even when they aren't. By the time a 'polished' manuscript (i.e. a book finished and self edited to the very best of my ability) gets to the publisher and then the formal edit arrives back to me I'm banking on two things. Firstly, I've taken long enough away from reading my work that's it's fresh to my eyes and mind and, secondly, the new set of eyes checking for errors and necessary changes (i.e my editor) will do their job and help produce a final product that's error free. After having seven books of varying sizes published, I realize it doesn't necessarily work that way and errors still slip through.

I take heart in the fact that even major publishing houses and best selling authors have trouble producing error free manuscripts and, for the reasons laid out below, I wonder whether we place too high an expectation on writers, editors and proof readers to produce perfect.

Education standards and expectations placed on literacy levels (and other disciplines) are sadly declining. Well, they are in Australia so I assume it's a world wide phenomenon. The English language continues to evolve and words that weren't included in dictionaries years ago are now appearing as the accepted norm. If you do an internet search for new words added to the Oxford Dictionary you'll discover that, for example, in February 2013 tweetable (which by the way is underlined in red by my spell check program) is now a recognized word. Go twitter, you really are changing our lives, lol.

I expect some of you have cringed at the text/chat speak above. For those of you wondering about using lol, it is also now in the dictionary. We need to move with the times I guess and I ask myself, if the Oxford Dictionary can adapt to evolving language trends, surely authors, readers and editors need to do the same. I read one author in particular who loves to include abbreviations and contractions in her books, and I accept why. They are now part of everyday speech. Her books are modern contemporary romances and in order for a realistic presence to the characters in her books, the SOB's need to be there. Still, in forums discussing her work there are often complaints about it.

Another issue that writers and editors face is the global nature of publishing. I'm Australian, educated under the rules of English usage, grammar, punctuation and writing style from a British/Australian perspective. Comma usage and sentence structure, for me, varies to that of writing styles in the US, as does spelling and the meanings of certain words. All of my books, bar one, follow US spelling standards, but there are still differences that an editor and I will haggle over when it comes to the final version of my books. Even within the US, there is variation in the style guides used to edit and format the written word. Add into the mix guides and practices from the author’s country of origin and I sometimes wonder how editors actually assist us to construct a coherent, grammatically correct, perfectly spelt manuscript for publication.  I mean let's face it, a reader somewhere in the world will find an error, you can't be all things to all people, especially when it comes to language.

Then there are the things all authors face, overused words... and, it's, she, he, that...there are too many to name and I hate every one of them. Again, the fact remains we need these words. Use of them is all about perspective. What I think is overuse may be perfectly acceptable to another author or editor and vice versa. Words like felt are sometimes frowned on, as are contractions, passive voice and the list goes on. Realistically, each author has there own writing style and ultimately we need to be true to that when we create. As I already said, you can’t please everyone because everyone has an opinion and in the current social networking climate those opinions are shared add nauseam.

We are a global society and as such need to embrace the difference that creates. Whether I type realized or realised shouldn't matter, they are actually the same word with the same meaning. When my first book, Finding Angel released I received comments from both readers and reviewers that they found the Australian spelling in the book distracting, the s in realized threw them off balance. Some reviewers even included a statement, a warning as such in their review that ‘this book contains AU spelling’, it really is laughable.

From a readers perspective mistakes can sometimes be annoying, yes I notice a misspelt word but it doesn't really make a difference to the final story, the plot, the characters, my enjoyment in reading it. I understand that US spelling and AU or UK spelling is different and in my view difference isn't incorrect, it’s just not the way I do it. As with the popular author who uses abbreviations I've heard readers in forums complain that 'it takes them out of the story.' Well keep reading and you'll get back into it or if the author’s writing style is that distracting, then don't read the books. The old adage 'nobody's perfect' is true for modern day editing. Authors, editors and publishers can try their best to produce a novel without error, but someone, somewhere in the world, will find a fault, even if it’s only a cultural difference and not an actual error.

The conclusion I reach from all this is…maybe we are just being too pedantic. We’re holding onto standards that no longer apply while neglecting the fact that the English language, for better or worse, is a beautiful and evolving creature that people from all around the world use, in their own way.

So what does everyone think? Are we too picky with the occasional error? As an author does chasing perfect when we write and edit add a level of pressure we don’t need? Have we, as a global society, become so critical that we can’t accept difference or even mistakes when they occur? Why can't we just enjoy the wonderfully creative story in front of us, knowing it's a world that someone has spent months piecing together for our ready pleasure?


  1. You have some really interesting thoughts here. As a pro editor, I often - as I was reading it - wished I were sitting in front of you to answer some of your questions. LOL I agree with you that it is nearly impossible to have a perfect manuscript. I have found errors in such places as Time and Newsweek magazines, the top of the literary industry. However, I would caution that when readers say that errors "take us out of the story", you really need to listen. I believe - and I tell clients the same - that my job as an editor, and yours as the author, is to create an enjoyable, CLEAR reading experience for your readers. Anything that interrupts their thought process, or what I call "jarring" them, is annoying to them and takes away from the enjoyment. Moreover, it takes away, however subconsciously, from their opinion of you as a reliable narrator. You want your readers to 1) trust your voice as the authority (whether fiction or nonfiction and 2) read peacefully, calmly, able to fully lose themselves in the experience you have tried to create (not be thrown in and out of it). So as much as possible, an author is duty-bound to clean that manuscript up. I am not only talking about grammar/spelling/typos/punctuation, but also sentence structure, word choices, etc. (By the way, your list of overused words baffled me!)

    I would suggest that you have hit upon one enormous reason why no author should be "editing" their own books. It has actually been studied and documented, that a writer's mind will automatically correct as the writer reads his or her own work, not actually seeing the reality of what is on the page. For example, if there is a missing word, or a missing "ed" or "s", your mind just fills it in. It takes an editor's eye to catch all of those. An editor will also help you make certain that your word choices are correct and that your overall structure makes sense and builds to climax in the best way possible.

    It may interest people to know that traditionally, publishing houses used a "three pairs of eyes" rule: that is, they had three editors read a manuscript for errors. This is how they caught (nearly) everything. Nowadays, the economy being the different reality that it is, they can't afford that, and unfortunately too many of the small ones don't hire a real editor at all to go through a manuscript. (What they call "editors" are actually fresh-out-of-college manuscript screeners.)

    I am glad you mentioned that there are different standards between countries in terms of vocabulary especially and sometimes sentence structure (I am trained to work in both British and American, and I don't see much, if any, difference in punctuation). The differences in style manuals are very minor - the big issues with grammar, spelling, usage are standard manual to manual (I use three regularly); it's tiny questions of preference that vary. Nothing for anyone to stress over.

    So I would encourage you to not be lazy about being meticulous. The more precise your language is, the higher regard your readers will have for you, and the better - and smoother - their reading experience will be. That matters when you are trying to establish a fan base and build it, and it matters because lazy writing has greatly damaged the reputation of self-publishing and ebooks and will continue to do so until all writers understand how important it is to fine-tune a manuscript, preferably with some professional assistance. For more on why one should hire an editor:

    1. I totally agree with your comment, Lichen, and I am in no way advocating edits shouldn't be performed on all written work. To add a touch of clarity, the post came about as a result of a reader comments in a forum. Statements like, 'if I finds even one error in a book I put it down and never read that author again. I found comments such as that astonishing, knowing that, from my own reading and writing experience, mistakes happen. The post was my attempt to address the issues raised. Anyway, thanks for your comments. It's nice to know the blog is still a relevant discussion point.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Lichen, I deleted this comment as it was a duplicate of the one above. :)

  3. I think we need to not confuse two different problems.

    The first, of course, is the person who has a stroke over a single misspelling. Errors existed in traditionally published books, too. They were rare, but I can think of several paperbacks put out there by big authors using big publishers that have mistakes here and there. Mistakes have happened since long before I started reading, and I suppose the pearl-clutching started right around the same time.

    The other problem is the fact that some writers seem to regard editing as optional, a corner to be cut. I read one foreword from an author who just flat out said he couldn't afford it. I've seen tweets from people offering free downloads (to regular readers, not pro editors, probably because editors would laugh at them) in exchange for editing services...and that was as far as they planned to go. And I've read (or started) so SO many books that were positively riddled with mistakes. Baffled by homophones, defeated by normal punctuation, over-reliance on spellcheck (because just because something's a word doesn't mean it's the right word)... I can't even be sure anymore how many of these errors are typos and how many are the product of an author who really doesn't know how to work the English language.

    (And now that I've written that, this post is virtually guaranteed to be overflowing with mistakes. I accept this.)

    And let's not forget the OCR conversion errors. I re-bought a series, probably 15 novels at full price (so we're talking > $100 all in one fell swoop), for Kindle. They were books I love and have read many, many times -- so many times, my paperbacks were on their last legs -- and they were written by a prolific, professional author and published by one of the big guys. And they had so many errors whole great swaths of the books were unreadable; the scanning process introduced some truly bizarre substitutions. Had I not already read these books and known the author could write, I'd have wondered if it was some sort of writing-as-therapy project -- they were that bad. I returned them, and sent the author an email telling her why, but the thing was, I'd picked these up years after they were converted to Kindle books. I can't have been the first person to say something. So yes, I primarily blame the publisher for not sending the books through a fresh round of editing, but I also blame the author for not caring enough about her readers (or, apparently, her reputation) to check the finished product.

    So please can we not conflate these two issues? The first is, at least in my admittedly limited experience, both rare and utterly scorned by the rest of us. The other has reached epidemic levels and is actually, I suspect, hurting the industry -- how many more people are like me and unwilling to trust a new author to turn out a professional product? The sad thing is, it's the latter that's breeding the former. People are LOOKING for mistakes now, and treating them as a sign of disrespect. Once the standards fell, readers' tolerance did too.

    Anyway, I do agree with your point that one can take this sort of thing too far...but I'd have to say that the vast majority of the complaints about quality and editing are justified.

    Goodness, that got long. Sorry. Rant over.