Many self-publishing authors have an idea of how many errors they want their editor to catch. Some expect their editor to offer perfection—and anything less is the opposite of a job well done.
This is understandable, even if the expectation is unrealistic and unreasonable. Editing costs a lot of money. You want to make sure that you’re publishing an error-free book; if an editor doesn’t catch everything, you have to pay again. And then what happens if there are errors still afterwards?
That can be extremely frustrating, especially if paying for just one round of editing already seems like an expense that can’t be afforded.
The unfortunate reality is that editors cannot promise perfection. And what’s more is that they can’t get anywhere close to perfection on the first pass.
The reality of editing is that it’s tricky. Even in stricter industries like academic editing, there exists nuance and subjectivity. Sentences that have objective errors could have multiple solutions, and then it’s possible that the chosen solution introduces a new error. This is made more complicated when you’re making subjective changes in the realm of author voice, cadence, tone, and so on.
A Little Thought Experiment
I like to explain editing with a little bit of number play.
Let’s say a copyeditor is sent a 50,000-word manuscript. This copyeditor is assessing, right then and there, 50,000 potential errors.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Every word interacts with the words around them. After all, that’s how we get sentences. And then from sentences you’ve got paragraphs. And then from paragraphs you’ve got chapters. You get the idea.
Copyeditors need to also assess how these 50,000 individual words melt in their respective pots.
In 1950, the average sentence length was 14 words, and has since moved up a teensy bit to a range between 15 to 20 words. Every word in that range has the potential of interacting poorly or incorrectly with the other words in each sentence. Then, each sentence has the potential of not working in tandem with the sentences surrounding them. A copyeditor doesn’t just check for typos and shoddy grammar—they also check for continuity and clarity. A bad apple in a good orchard ruins the harvest, and the same is true of a bad sentence or paragraph in an otherwise great piece.
Are you doing the math in your head? That’s all this little experiment needs.
It’s okay if you aren’t. This isn’t meant to be an exact equation. If you’ve been following along, you’ll notice that an editor faces an almost exponential conundrum here. One word is a potential error. Two words is three potential errors. Three words is six potential errors. Four, ten. Five, fifteen.
On and on until you have a sentence. Then you’re onto the next sentence. Don’t forget to add a potential error for between that sentence and the one that came before. Before you know it, you’re wrangling with hundreds of thousands of potential errors.
This is all to say that copyeditors and proofreaders are challenged with each project to root out every problem, make sure they don’t introduce new errors, and then make their recommendations ethically and with the target audience in mind.
This is difficult even when adhering to the strictest of rules.
Editors Can’t Catch Everything
Despite claims to the contrary, editors are human. It’s true. There’s a limit to what we can do. At some point, statistics reign supreme.
So how much can an editor actually catch on a consistent basis?
According to the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, copyeditors can be expected to catch 80% of errors per round of editing. This rings true for proofreaders too. The SfEP is a professional organization trusted by thousands of authors, companies, and non-profits around the world. They can source performance metrics from countless editorial professionals in a wide swath of industries and capacities, and their percentages don’t come out of thin air. This is an industry-tested metric that comes from real-world experience.
Experience of the editor and a good old-fashioned exuberant day (or a real downer of a morning) can both impact catch rate. Think of your concentration and how it wanes throughout the day. Consider that an editor’s job requires optimal concentration to reach that 80% figure, even if they’re educated and experienced. This is often why editors work short days: something so mentally taxing is simply impossible to do for lengthy periods of time for most people.
Quality of the writing can also play a part. A manuscript that needs heavy copyediting may very well have a catch rate south of 80% simply because there’s only so much that can be coherently done and assessed on a single pass. If major sections are being rewritten or restructured, it is inevitable that new errors will be introduced and that preexisting errors will go unnoticed. Many editors often recommend diligent self-editing both to make the job easier and to save the author money—a bigger job equals a bigger price tag.
Let’s go back to the figure from the thought experiment: a few hundred thousand potential errors. But let’s face it: potential errors aren’t worth anything to an author; they are, of course, interested in the errors that actually exist. The ones that readers will see and possibly complain about.
A 50,000-word manuscript could have anywhere from a couple hundred changes to several thousand waiting for an editor’s touch. Consider a hypothetical book where we know there are 5,000 errors. Using the SfEP’s expected catch rate, a copyeditor after a single pass can be expected to catch 4,000 errors.
That doesn’t sound promising to a self-publishing author with a limited editing budget. Luckily, book editing has some advantages here. Many errors often amount to style consistency, and typo catch rates are nearer to 90% instead of 80%.
Many copyeditors who work on books tend to have catch rates higher than 80%, assuming the manuscript is in decent shape before ever reaching their desk. Personally, I tend to hover around the 93 to 95% mark. I don’t promise that catch rate, but I’m not sure it’s happened yet that I’ve gone below it.
The Importance of Tempering Expectations
95% is a great catch rate. A fantastic catch rate, really. It’s not something you should expect as a rule. When in doubt, expect the 80% as suggested by the SfEP.
Here is where we run into a big difference between trade/traditional publishing and self-publishing. Traditionally published books look as clean as they do, have as few errors as they do, because their books do not go through a single round of editing. Ignoring developmental editing and line editing, it’s possible that a book will go through several copyediting rounds and then a final proofreading round pre- and/or post-design.
Above, we had a hypothetical book with 5,000 errors. 4,000 get caught during the first round.
Let’s do another round of copyediting—another 80%. Another 800 errors caught.
Now you have 200 errors left. For self-publishers, this may be when they hire a proofreader (commonly seen as copyediting lite). Either way, you’re looking at another 80% if you go for another round. 160 errors caught.
Only 40 left. Another round. 8 errors left. This is about the time that authors and publishers often publish—and then suffer the embarrassment of having readers catch those 8 errors real lickity-split within the first month of release.
The hypothetical above is just that: a hypothetical. As mentioned, book editors usually enjoy a catch rate higher than 80%. For a copyeditor who can catch 95% of errors, you’ll be happy to hear that two rounds of 95% editing will catch 99.75%.
It is likely that you’ll need to have two to four rounds of editing done to get close to a near-perfect release. Self-publishers, if they are particularly diligent in their self-editing, can usually get one round of copyediting done and then a round of proofreading. Self-editing is a unique skill, however, and it is not a bad sign if you’re not good at it. It just means you may need to invest more in professional editing to ensure your readers don’t read a story that is riddled with errors.
“Riddled with errors” sounds harsh, doesn’t it?
Your editors are your greatest ally in the publishing journey. It can feel disheartening to see so many changes, but remember that an editor is there to make your product the best it can be; whether it be a book, an article, a speech, or a thesis. An editor gains nothing by breaking down an author. It’s our job to maximize the chances of success, as ultimately your victory is also a victory for us.
A good cover draws in a reader. A good design makes your book fun to read. But a good editor makes sure your writing is up to a professional standard that meets modern convention and greases the wheels, so to speak, for your readers. Editing ensures that those reading your work can focus on your story instead of wringing their wrists about the errors and inconsistencies.
An editor helps you become a storyteller.
Are You Looking for an Editor?
If you’re looking for a copyeditor for your book, you’re in luck. I’m a copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with self-publishing authors. I’m particularly experienced in fantasy, science fiction, romance, thrillers, and self-help books.
Check out my portfolio and my testimonials. I offer free sample edits in the neighbourhood of 1,000 words, so be sure to reach out via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. My prices can be found here.
Best of luck in your publishing journey!