The Limitations of Editing and the Benefits of Multiple Passes
As I pass the one-year mark of operating BD Editing on a full-time basis, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve become a much better editor, but more importantly, a year of working with indie authors and editing dozens of books has made me aware of the limitations of editing. No editing is perfect, as we’ve all heard (or seen by reading Jurassic Park), but there are ways to get it close to perfect, and that’s with multiple editing passes, ideally by more than one set of eyes.
The Limitations of Editing
Editors are human beings. Many of us employ technology to help us (for example, I use Grammarly, MS Word’s advanced search functions, and even MS Excel), but we’re still prone to making mistakes (or, rather, missing them).
So how many mistakes (or missed mistakes, depending on how you view it) is acceptable? In the publishing world, editors are expected to catch a minimum of 95% of mistakes per pass. Now, the term “mistake” is a bit fluid and debatable, but if an editor makes 100 changes to your document, we can assume that he/she missed around five or so things. (The math isn’t exact on this, but you get the idea.)
Five remaining mistakes for every 100? That’s pretty scary.
Personally, I think that 95% mark is a little low. Like I said, I use technology as much as possible, which catches at least a few things I missed. I also read out loud, which has helped improve my effectiveness a ton. (I have more to say about this, but I’ll write a full post about it later.)
So if you hire an editor and your book comes back with thousands of changes, like many of them do, expect some mistakes to have slipped through the cracks. That’s unavoidable.
How can we fix this? Assuming editors can catch 95% of mistakes per editing pass, a second pass on a book with only five remaining mistakes (from 100) will result in, well, 0.25 mistakes. So multiple editing passes seems to be the answer. And that’s exactly what the traditional publishing industry does.
Editing in the Trad Publishing World
I’ve discussed this a bit in some of my other posts, but to briefly summarize here, traditionally published books go through several rounds of editing. First, they’ll go through developmental or structural editing to work on the story. Indie authors usually do this via beta reading. Second, books will go through a line editor. The line editor will address issues of flow and clarity, which necessarily involves correcting grammar, spelling, usage, and whatnot. Third, the book will see copy editing. Copy editing, in its truest form, involves standardizing the text. This means making the book adhere to style guides. Again, at this stage, there’s some more correcting things and catching mistakes. Finally, the book will be typeset and then go to a proofreader, who will pick out any remaining errors.
That’s four rounds of editing. Four! And each round is usually done by a different sets of eyes. If we apply the 95% rule I discussed above to even the last three passes, that should bring the number of remaining errors down to something approaching zero.
This is expensive, though—way more than most indie authors can afford (I’m talking at least several thousand dollars). So if indie authors can’t copy this process exactly, they should at least attempt to mimic it.
The Indie Solution
As indies, we want/need to compete with traditionally published books, and that means trying to match their editing standards. So if the multiple-pass method works for trad publishers, we should assume it will for us, too.
Again, this all comes down to the limitations of editing. As I discussed above, a book with 100 changes might have five remaining errors. A second editing pass that catches 95% of mistakes will, statistically speaking, have 0.25 or zero errors left when all is said and done.
I’ve started offering a double-pass edit as my standard service. (In fact, I recently restructured my services to fall in line with my evolving philosophy on editing.) First, I line edit the piece, paying special attention to clarity, correctness, and flow. Then I return the book to the author to review and action any comments or queries I make. Finally, I go through the book a second time, usually on my Kindle, to catch another round of remaining errors.
As BD Editing grows and I edit more and more books, I’ve also realized the importance of multiple sets of eyes. The human brain is really good at remembering patterns, even in something as dense and complex as a book of 70,000–120,000 words. That’s why I’m in talks with other editors who I can contract to do second-pass proofreads. This will get two sets of eyes on a book and will catch many more errors than a single editing pass by one person.
Multiple editing passes is the key to producing the cleanest possible text. What should you do if you don’t have the budget to pay for two editing passes? Get your text as clean as possible before it goes to your editor. If we apply our 95% rule, fewer errors to begin with means fewer errors at the end. Use Grammarly. Use the Hemingway app. Read out loud. Do whatever you can.
If you have the budget, give my double-pass editing service a try. It’s been working out great so far and authors are happy with it. Once I start working with contracted proofreaders, I’m confident the end products will be even better.
Have any thoughts about the limitations of editing or on my services? Shoot me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m always happy to discuss the craft.