Mistakes Were Made: On editing, proofing, and why errors get through

GREETINGS, fellow travelers.

I was talking with my colleague, fellow writer/editor/publisher R.G. Emanuelle this morning (and if you have not read her work, her latest is an awesome F/F gothic thriller/mystery).

R.G. and I are co-founders and co-owners of publishing venture Dirt Road Books. We and 4 other authors got together and launched it in 2017. R.G. and I come from traditional publishing back in the day; collectively, we have over 40 years of experience in publishing (omg dinosaurs roaming the earth).

Both of us worked with publishing houses before ebooks, way before the availability of platforms as we know them now, so we’ve been editing and proofing manuscripts in various formats for a while.

Today we were talking about typos and errors that sneak into the final product, and I thought I would offer some thoughts about how and why that happens, and I’ll do a comparison of old-school vs. new-school processes in publishing a manuscript.

Also, it might be valuable for readers who don’t have a background in publishing or editing to understand the amount of work that goes into a manuscript, whether its format is print or ebook, so you understand why books are priced the way they are. Sure, you can say that “ebooks should be priced even lower than they currently are because they’re just electronic files,” but the fact is, the manuscript behind that ebook went through an ass-load of work before it got ebooked. You wouldn’t do a ton of work on contract for a pittance, would you? Or for free? Well, there you go. Just something else to ponder.

Anyway, let’s break this down.

So here’s basically the process a manuscript went through before ebooks/ebook platforms became practically ubiquitous:

      • Manuscript goes to copyeditor, in paper form. That shit was printed out in entirety throughout the old-school method, in various forms, and at various times. Copyeditor often works with author, and will also alert in-house editors to style elements within the manuscript on the hard-file and in the electronic file. That’s right. Two files. One virtual, one in real-life, and the real-life manuscript is marked up with red ink and pages tagged with sticky notes. Comments are written, and that’s the manuscript that goes to the author to go through, who sends it back to copyeditor to check through again. By hand. On paper.

      • Manuscript comes back from copyeditor and in-house editor ensures changes are incorporated. This happens with another editor who gets the Word file ON DISK (before that, Word Perfect file omg) and works off the hard copy AND the file the copyeditor sent ON DISK, checking changes in that file and also inserting visual codes/cues for the typesetter along the way. Like, e.g., and to alert the typesetter that whatever text was within those visual codes was supposed to be set off as a block quote. It was basically visual HTML coding, though rather than “em” for, say, “italics,” it might be a hand-entered code like “ital” within brackets then “/ital” in brackets at the end of the phrase/text that you want italicized.
      • Once the file is cleaned up, it then goes to design, where the designer uses a design program like Quark (later, InDesign) to create the book’s interior for printing. During that process, the designer is experimenting with fonts and spacing to create a visual experience on the page as well as just to flow the text. Designing a book’s interior involves choosing fonts and appearance that will evoke the book’s mood/story.
      • The book is now designed and the designer prints it out again as it will look, this time on big sheets: 11 x 17. That allows you to put two facing pages on one set of paper. This stage is called “proof stage.” A set of proofs goes to the author to check (with a checklist) and a set of proofs to the editor who’s been working on it. All will be checking frontmatter (copyright page) and backmatter (notes/bibliography if applicable), illustration placement and captions (if applicable), table of contents’ list of page numbers against the actual text, runningheads (the top of each page that has the author’s name and book title).
    page proof example, author Meljean Brook. Find the example HERE (meljeanbrook.com)
      • Proofs come back from author and editor incorporates author’s changes onto his/her/their set of proofs BY HAND.
      • Editor gives that set of proofs to the designer to incorporate the changes onto the electronic file BY HAND.
      • Designer prints out pages on which changes were made so the editor can check against the previous set of proofs (with yet another checklist) to ensure the changes got made, putting a check mark and initials by each one so the designer sees that indeed, that was looked at. That checklist attached to the proofs that an editor filled out regarding changes allowed a designer to see whether something was needed when the proofs went back.
      • Editor goes through revised proofs and also has a proofreader go through.
      • Editor incorporates all those changes onto revised paper proofs, signs off, sends back to designer to prep file for printing.
      • Designer incorporates changes BY HAND and has editor check to make sure THOSE changes got made
    Stack of manuscripts, Tupelo University Press. SOURCE (jeffreylevine.com)
    • Then the designer preps the file, and sends file to the printer.
    • Printer sends pretty proofs for checking, on heavier paper and in color. It’s expensive at that stage to make corrections, but remember that every time a manuscript changes appearance, it’s like you’re seeing it through a new set of eyes. And guess what that means? You probably pick up mistakes, even this late in the game.
    • Editor checks proofs from printer for spelling/typos/missing words while also re-checking illustrations/captions, front- and backmatter, the table of contents and pagination, and the runningheads across the top. The designer does the same thing.
    • Editor signs off, designer then has to work directly with the printer to make changes in the file on their end, printer sends another set of proofs, this one just the pages of the requested changes. Everybody checks again, and once it’s ensured that those changes were made, designer gives the okay for the printer to print the book and send it to the publisher’s warehouse for stocking. The warehouse staff takes care of sending books to distributors and individuals who order them.

    Oh, my stars and garters. That’s a HELL of a process, amirite?

    So. You can see that there were a lot of eyes on a manuscript, and a lot of quality control that went on.

    But mistakes still got made, and still got printed.

    Why is that? Well, because we’re all human and we all miss shit. That’s the bottom line. The other issue with the old-school method was that errors were INTRODUCED during the process (that whole “human” thing), which stands to reason because changes were hand-entered, from the initial clean-up stage to the end stages before a file went to the printer. Doesn’t mean errors don’t get introduced in the new-school ways, either. They do. Keep that in mind.

    I worked in editorial in an academic publishing house that also published fiction. I was an editorial assistant, an assistant editor, an acquiring editor, and then a managing editor, which meant I oversaw the editorial department manuscript flow and looked at every manuscript; that publishing house did about 90 books a year. So I’ve seen lots of manuscripts, and have worked on every single process described above, including as a copyeditor and proofreader.

    The fact is, we were good, but shit still got through. That’s the nature of the beast.

    So how does this work new-school? And has technology helped mitigate errors?

    HA HA!


  • Okay, maybe it has in some ways. But in others, no. And some houses still print out manuscripts, so don’t think that’s entirely disappeared.

    But let’s go through this, as it would work at a publisher that maybe doesn’t print manuscripts out.

      • Manuscript is now completely electronic and never printed out, which means it’s not changing format as often, and thus not “tricking your eye” to see it differently and catch more things.
      • Publisher sends file to copyeditor, who works directly with the author and she and the editor incorporate all changes electronically, via Word’s tracking function, generally. The copyeditor will alert publisher to stylistic features in accordance with whatever style guide the house has. Mistakes, however, can get introduced because an editor is working in the electronic file and may miss something the author wanted changed or perhaps she keystrokes something while doing something else and doesn’t catch it. Point is, things can get introduced.
    On-screen editing. Source (bold-type.com.au)
      • Manuscript file comes back to publisher with the copyeditor’s and author’s changes already incorporated into the file, and style changes noted therein.
      • Editor may or may not go through the manuscript at this point. Hopefully, they do. Otherwise, it goes right to the typesetter for a print book if applicable. The typesetter may also be the person who creates ebooks off the file. If not, another person is now working off the file to create ebooks, and if this is done concurrently, it means you’ve got two sets of files going that may contain the same errors, so maybe do the typeset file first and send that through check THEN do the ebook files.
      • Electronic proofs are created, generally in PDF. The proofs are sent to the author to check and to a proofreader. Remember, the manuscript has changed form, so you’re gonna see stuff that was not caught in the initial stages.
      • Author AND proofreader send their changes back to the publisher, and guess what? These changes might come in as a list of things to be done, also electronically. You can make changes on a PDF, through comments and highlights (if you have a subscription to the platform), but authors just make a list of changes they’d like made via page number and send that along, too. At some point, though, there is some change-entering going on by hand, which increases chances of introduced errors.
    You can annotate PDF proofs, but Adobe is kinda weird, so make sure you’re able to do so. Source. (academy.pubs.asha.org)
      • Publisher checks ebook files, too, to ensure there’s no weirdness. But if you see something in an ebook file, that means it needs to be changed in the file designated for the print book, too. So you have to make sure you’re working off the right sets of files.
      • Typesetter/ebook creator make sure changes get incorporated into the separate files, then hopefully, there’s a check to make sure that changes were incorporated accurately. If not, there’s a chance something did not get changed or that something else got introduced. Keep in mind, too, that you’ve got various electronic files floating around, and if you don’t have a really good way of ensuring that people are all working off the same incarnation of the manuscript file — and the latest one — well, that can cause problems, too.
      • Ebook files, too, can be really temperamental, and in translation to various formats can actually introduce errors or drop words/sentences. Which is why it’s important to check those.
    Creating an ebook file in Jutoh. Source (publishdrive.com)
    • Final electronic files are ready and the file for the print book is sent to the printer that’s going to do the print-on-demand and print and ship books to the companies that order them. Ebook files are uploaded to various designated platforms.

    But again, we’re only human and yes, we miss stuff. Or, in the modern tech age, we maybe don’t get the right file to the right person, because there’s so much efile exchange going on, and timelines are condensed. Old school pub houses back in the day — it was often at least a year to two years for publication. New school, it can be mere months. Which puts a lot of stress and expectation on people trying to ensure things get quality control.

    But shit gets through. It just does. And if a book is self-published, that can go either to high quality or not-so-high, depending on the author’s experience with editing and proofreading.

    With the boom in self-publishing and ebooks, lots of people declare themselves “editors” who maybe don’t have much of a background in it, and that doesn’t lend itself to quality control. Or if you have an author who self-publishes who doesn’t understand the value of experienced editors/copyeditors/proofreaders, that can also create problems with quality.

    But even if you have a solid process set up, if you have a copyeditor and a proofreader who are experienced, shit is going to get through.

    Hopefully, it’s little shit. Like a typo or a dropped word. That’s usually the stuff I see in every single book I read, regardless of the house. On average, I’ll find 2-3 typos in a book and maybe a dropped word. Which I think is pretty good.

    But some books…oh, sweet baby jeeziz in a Cadillac. In one independently published book I attempted to read, I found, like, 7 typos in the first two pages. I didn’t even bother reading the rest of it.

    At any rate, the point of this exercise is to help give you a surface understanding of what goes into creating a book (at a publishing house), how things have changed over the years, and hopefully explain why boo-boos still get through. Technology doesn’t automatically make people better editors and in some cases, can actually make us lazier. But old-school methods didn’t prevent error-free books, either.

    At any rate, happy reading, even with the occasional boo-boo. 😀

6 thoughts on “Mistakes Were Made: On editing, proofing, and why errors get through

  1. JFC…is this post overdue or what! Thanks…every word is true, and there’s even more! The best observation, I think, is the NEW introduction of errors and how easy it happens in the complicated process. i also do formatting with Vellum, which is almost idiot proof…and yet, and yet, it still happens. Thanks!

  2. Good to see the sausage making!

    I’d suggest a proofreader before going to design (in Word) then again before going to print (PDF). They are the final catcher and pointless if people are still making changes.

    • Well, sure, but it depends on the house and the process they’ve implemented. if you don’t have in-house proofreaders, that’s at least another 200 bucks a pop you’re dropping (“mainstream” houses pay a bit more). If you’re going to use an in-house proofreader, then that person really shouldn’t be anyone who’s already read the manuscript and some houses have really small teams.

      Ultimately, mistakes are going to get through. Even proofreaders introduce errors or things they catch don’t make it into the next stage. The more eyes on a manuscript, too, can also lead to problems — the old adage about too many cooks in the kitchen? Well, that can apply here, too. The more people you introduce into the process, the more the opportunity to introduce errors.

      The point is, I consider it a pretty good job if I only find 2-3 typos/misspellings in a 200+-page book after all the stages a manuscript goes through. Obsessing about catching every little thing isn’t going to catch every little thing and no process will catch every little thing because humans are fallible. Some processes are better than others, and some editors/proofreaders are better than others. And a lot of that comes with experience.

      I’ve stopped trying to find the golden process to prevent all errors because there isn’t one. Now I look for processes that keep things streamlined, keep everybody on the same page (as it were) to minimize the introduction of errors, and ensures that 4-5 different sets of eyes look at it, and that’s usually 2 editors and 2 proofreaders.

      So we all look for a balance. That, I think, is the best way to approach the process.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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