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Editors Can’t Be Perfectionists

editors can't be perfectionists

I just finished copy editing my first full book manuscript. After I had read through the entire thing, I was searching for “their” to check agreement, and I came across a sentence that was missing a word.

I stared at my computer in horror and blathered incoherent noises for a minute.

Later, as I was doing a final scroll-through of the Word document, I spotted an “every” that should have been “ever.” Oh no! I fixed it, obviously, but the negative thoughts rushed into my head: The manuscript is probably riddled with errors—egregious, noticeable errors—and I will be found out and never trusted with a book manuscript again. I’ll be stuck editing blogs until I go blind.

But then I remembered a very important lesson that I’ve had to teach my perfectionist self: Editors can’t be perfectionists.

Now, you think, this seems a bit off. Isn’t an editor’s job to make everything perfect? Uh, no. An editor’s job is to follow a process to find errors, correct them, and make the writing shine. Editors make the text easy to read for the reader, and they make the writer look good. Editing has nothing to do with perfectionism—it’s just too much pressure to place on an editor (or anyone, for that matter).

Nothing you do is going to be perfect—and I really mean nothing. Your relationships won’t be perfect. Your writing won’t be perfect. Your sweeping of the floor won’t be perfect—you’ll miss a crumb or dust mite! So why would you expect your work, even if that work is finding and eliminating as many mistakes as possible, to be perfect?

If you’re an editor who can’t get past perfectionism, you’re going to torture yourself and waste a lot of your time. There will always be a tiny error that cloaks itself in an invisibility cloak and hunkers down in a corner of your manuscript and stays hidden (until you have the printed book in your hands—then that tiny error will magically reveal itself to you). No matter how good you are or how hard you try or how long you stare at the Word doc, there will probably be a mistake of some sort that slips by, even if you read super carefully and check diligently for errors.

And even more vexing, perhaps, is that there will be countless style decisions that nitpicky grammar “enthusiasts” will question or flat-out say are wrong. For example, I’m sure someone somewhere is going to be flustered with my decision to follow AP Stylebook’s “pushup” instead of Merriam-Webster’s “push-up” in the book. (Even Google Docs is throwing a fit about pushup right now.) But guess what? It’s an intentional decision, and it doesn’t really matter anyway as long as you’re consistent and readers know what it means.

You must know that you will make mistakes and people will disagree with your decisions. Expect this, and don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself. You can’t please everyone and you can’t be perfect, so once you’ve read through the manuscript, gone through your checklist of tricky words and errors, and maybe even skimmed through the manuscript again, send it off. Stop staring at it! Channel your inner Elsa and just let it go. Yes, maybe you could find something you missed if you spend another five hours on it. But let’s be real—who has that kind of time? Better to celebrate that you’ve completed the project with some cake and The Great British Baking Show and wake up bright and early tomorrow to start on the next project.