Why do I see so many mistakes in published works?

Mountain valley overlooking river

Ah, yes. Your favourite newspaper has a typo in its headline or you’ve found desert when dessert was meant. It happens! And, obviously, it happens to established authors and at established publishing houses. But… how?

“I can’t believe the editor didn’t catch that!”

Everyone has at least thought this while reading a particularly flagrant mistake in a reputable publication. While there are times that the editor missed something, more often the editor did catch that error—and it still made it into the book! Even at an established publishing house, authors are given veto privileges over the editor’s changes. Occasionally this leads to syntactical or grammatical errors irritating enough to be picked up by the average reader. Other times, material was added late in the process and was unable to go through multiple, rigorous rounds of editing. In which case, the editor might not have caught that error because they only had a few hours to review the additional material before it was scheduled to go to press.

Let’s say the book did get to go through multiple rounds of rigorous editing—the dream scenario—and there are still errors found in the first editions. How?! Human error, mechanical or technological failures, and good old-fashioned Murphy’s Law get their fair share of the blame. A proofreader may have stetted (keep as is or “let it stand”; aka ignore the edit made) or made an incorrect change by checking against old material, old references, or old style guides. The typesetter could have simply misread what was intended during layout or accidentally put something in the wrong spot. A file could have been corrupted and misread at the printers.

And, yes, your editor can overlook something. This is why you need to do more than one round of editing. Any changes you make at a sentence-level need to be at least copy edited again. And this isn’t taking into account making large changes to the manuscript, such as removing problematic characters or incorporating new research that fundamentally challenges your thesis. If you try to get a comprehensive or all-inclusive edit instead of breaking it down, the risk you take that your editor will be unable to address the changes you make or that they’ll miss something increases.

Doing a self-edit or getting some beta readers to give you feedback that you act on before handing your work over to an editor can save you time and money, plus will give you a really solid grasp of the story’s finished version.

In any event, once you’ve established there are no big-picture changes that need to be made, your editor can peel apart the layers of your writing to look at style and grammar concerns separately. If you’re looking for polish, this is where you find it.

But, even then you see a typo in published works. The editor missed (or miss-keyed) an error, and you noticed it. The word count for the average novel is more than 50,000 words (self-help works and other entrepreneurial or business-sector books tend to be closer to 35,000). That’s a .002 error percentage. Even if you see a few errors, editors consistently achieve more than 99% perfection on what they review—that’s pretty great. That typo you found worked really hard to get there.

So why do you seem to notice so many headlines and books with errors? Honestly, they likely didn’t receive enough editorial attention (read: the projects weren’t budgeted for enough time or money to pay for editing). Properly allotting time for multiple and thorough editing rounds prevents fatigue for all parties, thereby reducing introduced errors and increasing the likelihood lingering errors will be caught before publishing. Newscasting is particularly fraught with errors due to our demand for up-to-the-minute reports. Hard to edit something you need to post the second you’re done writing it! Printed papers used to at least have the luxury of a few hours to review everything before printing. Now they’re updating in real-time online to keep up with the demands of the market.

… And this isn’t even touching on retractions for publishing unproven or false information.

If you want to avoid having noticeable errors in your work, get it edited. Do it yourself the first time, if you can, and then seek outside counsel. If you can afford it, do multiple rounds of editing to get your work to its highest level. And don’t be afraid to get a few different viewpoints! While you do want to stick with the same editor for a full edit, it can be helpful to have a second reviewer. I like suggesting a different copy editor if I’ve worked on a developmental and line edit so the final eyes on a piece are entirely fresh and diligently looking for anything that slipped through the cracks.

Find the method that works for you to decrease embarrassing oversights before you publish.

Published by M Gardner

Editor and writing coach. I'm keen on helping establish and grow unique authorial voices for maximum impact in the reading world.

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