Errata and Editors


Scan courtesy of Steve Holmes

“‘My apologies if there are errors, which the Publishers will endeavour to correct at the earliest opportunity.’ I just read that on the Acknowledgements page of another publisher’s book. And I still resent it.”

I came across this in the Facebook feed of an editor friend today. One of the replies included the scan above. Apparently errata notices have a long history. I love this one–the author suggests the reader correct any errors they find! In most cases, authors will acknowledge others who have contributed to their work, while assuming all responsibility for errors. I can see why my editor friend would resent the statement he found in another publisher’s book. Whether self-published or published by a publisher, the author is finally and always responsible for their work. After all, it is their work!

That said, we all need editors and proof-readers. For this blog I do not employ someone to do this because it is a labor of love, not profit. And those of you who are careful readers probably notice this! I do read aloud posts to my wife, and often find myself correcting mistakes I made that I had overlooked in proofing a post. Reading aloud is one way to catch errors as you really have to go word for word and listen to how something sounds. I have sometimes written posts for others, and always find editors improve both the clarity of ideas and style. And this is just with blogs of 500 to 1000 words!

In researching this post, I was reminded of the differences between editors and proof-readers. There are even different kinds of editors who are involved at different points in the process of bringing a manuscript to its final published form.

Substantive editors look at the overall structure of a work and make sure it is coherent and flows logically. They are not focused so much on formal rules of grammar and syntax as the intended use of the work and how the content, organization, style and design all contribute to this.

Copy editors do just that. They edit copy, working these days from an electronic document. Their job is not to change the content of the work or its organization but to work with the author’s writing to polish grammar and syntax for elegance and clarity while keeping the author’s voice. They spot omitted and misspelled words and help conform a work to the publisher’s style sheet, including making sure usage is consistent throughout. And they catch all those little punctuation mistakes with commas and semicolons and more. Copy editors may also be involved in noting possible legal concerns in a work, making sure needed permissions are secured (including for all epigraphs), and fact or reference checking, although this is often random and not thorough. Authors, especially scholarly ones retain the responsibility for the accuracy of facts and all references.

Proofreading is the final stage in the process. The proof is a manuscript formatted as it will be published. Proofreading duplicates some of the work of copy-editing looking at spelling, grammar, punctuation, and particularly the consistency and formatting of the layout. They may catch things missed in copy-editing but also errors made in formatting the manuscript for publication including “widows and orphans”, loose lines with gaps between works, and more. Proofreaders typically work with a .pdf version of a print book or the .mobi or .epub version of an electronic book and keep a master file list of all changes to be made. A formatter or designer makes the final changes.

If you are self-publishing, then either you do all this, contract this out to one or more people, or publish a shoddy work that fails to represent you at your best.  And, as one friend who spent many years editing says, “Everyone needs an editor.” With cost-cutting in many publishing houses, this may increasingly be outsourced and sometimes authors need to arrange for some of this work themselves. Still, most publishers still retain people who at least copy-edit and proof-read at various points in the process. Many maintain high standards. No matter what, authors retain the responsibility for their work–it is just bad manners and style to pass this off onto anyone including one’s publisher.

Even after all this, errors happen. Think about it. A 99.999 percent accuracy rate in a 100,000 word work would still mean at least one misspelling. Add in issues of grammar, syntax, punctuation, formatting, errors of fact, citations, and you might have five errors in a work and still achieve that level of accuracy. I suspect most works don’t reach quite that level, and most of us don’t notice most of what was wrong. The biggest thing I see is where a wrong word is used but properly spelled and probably due to relying too heavily on spelling and perhaps grammar checks done via software.

If a work is truly shoddily edited, reviewers should note it. If people are warned off from buying such works it will help improve quality. Some readers love to contact publishers when they find errors. Most publishers probably appreciate it. For me, unless it’s an issue of factual significance and I’m sure the author is wrong, I just may take the advice in the front of the book pictured above and “correct such Trivials with [my] pen.”

One thought on “Errata and Editors

  1. I frequently find more than five errors in issues of grammar, syntax, punctuation, formatting, fact and/or citations in a typical book. I correct them with my pen, but I find them to be distracting from the flow of reading. Someone needs to develop really good proofreading software, and then it needs to get used.

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