The worst kind of editorial mistake: not rocking the boat

This is, um, a guest post, from someone who definitely isn’t me, because I’m great and never get anything wrong and you should totally hire me.

A copyeditor can make all sorts of mistakes, and I’ve made most of them.

Sometimes you just miss things. Nobody is perfectly attentive every minute of every working day, and whatever tricks you use to tighten the net so slip-ups don’t slip through, now and again they do.

Sometimes you just don’t know enough about the language. Even if you’re not working in a specialist field, there are obscure words that occasionally pop up in the wrong place. The writer thinks it means something that it doesn’t quite, and maybe you do too.

Sometimes you might even introduce your own errors. If you’re rewriting a sentence with poor grammar, you might make a typo. And you might not notice it. So you end up breaking the Typographic Oath: do no harm. These mistakes are particularly embarrassing, but they still aren’t the worst.

The worst mistakes are not failures of skill or knowledge: they’re failures of nerve.

Sometimes you’ll see something that you’re not sure about. Does this sentence quite fit in that context? Is that statement supposed to be so uncompromising? Do these two paragraphs suggest subtly different things? Does that statistic really support that conclusion? Is this passage’s tone at odds with the rest of the piece? Would a little more information here help the reader?

And, despite the doubt, for one reason or another you don’t query it. Maybe the deadline is looming. Maybe the client is notoriously hostile to any feedback more substantial than typo-fixing. Maybe half a dozen people who know the subject matter better than you have already looked at it and seen nothing wrong.

You don’t want to rock the boat. So you let it go. It’ll probably be OK, you tell yourself.

Often, it is OK. But sometimes it isn’t. And then you’ll know that you could have got it fixed but didn’t.

I can recall a couple of times in my career that I’ve done this. Regrets tend to stick in the mind. If you’re the kind of copyeditor who really cares about getting things right – that is, a good copyeditor – then you will damn well care when you realise you threw away a chance to do just that.

The whole point of a copyeditor is to see things other people don’t, to ask awkward questions other people haven’t thought of. To be ready to make a nuisance of yourself when you think it’s in a good cause.

You are there precisely to rock the boat – because carefully rocking the boat, while it’s still in dock, will show you where it needs repairs. And that’s the way you stop it from sinking after it sets sail.

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  • edlatham  On January 19, 2014 at 1:59 pm

    Well said. I actually think it’s easier to rock the boat in newspapers, where I am now, than it was when I was a book editor. Newsrooms have a culture of frank and direct communication, which can be intimidating at first, but which also authorises you to be frank and direct yourself. On a paper, the boat’s almost always rocking anyway; you’re rarely the person who first sets it going.

    Also, subs wield a lot more power to cut and change than book editors do, where the culture is very much one of deference to the author. I remember that powerless feeling when even clear errors in book manuscripts had to be marked in pencil and ‘queried’ with the author.

    • Tom Freeman  On January 21, 2014 at 9:34 am

      That sounds plausible. My deadlines are generally somewhere beween newspaper and book scales, and I normally have leeway to give things a reasonable amount of attention and raise any concerns.

  • Adrienne (scieditor)  On January 20, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    I appreciate your imperfection. I think this self-awareness is both a sign of maturity and of skill, since you know what you don’t know. It may be a sign of higher standards, too.
    I’ve looked into error rates in editing, and even with simple typo detection, professional humans top out at 95% detection. When it comes to the type of “failure to query” error you speak of here, who knows what the correction/detection rate would be.
    You can read more about that human error research here:

  • datmama4  On January 21, 2014 at 7:35 am

    I recently did a copy edit eval for a potential client who apparently didn’t really want to hear what I had to say about her manuscript. She told me she’d self-published her first book with x, y, and z, and wanted to “go the same route” with this one. And x, y, and z are some pretty important changes that I know will polish her novel. Because she still wants me to “edit” her book, I’m now reduced to only looking for typos and punctuation, forced to ignore numerous clichés, awkward phrasing and an odd verb tense. Why is she hiring me if she doesn’t want me to do what I do? I’ll do the bare minimum if she insists, but I don’t want my name on it.

    I’m with you: rock the boat long before you find yourself in a position to sink. If I were an author, I’d much rather hear about the problems privately before publishing than later on in a public review of my less-than-stellar work.

    • Tom Freeman  On January 21, 2014 at 9:37 am

      Oh, I know the feeling! It’s always painful when your hands are tied for no reason other than someone’s fear of change. All you can do is spot the typos and take pride in how well you do what you’re allowed to do, rather than necessarily in the end product.

  • tj6james6  On March 22, 2014 at 2:12 am

    I just discovered you via another reader and I must say THANK YOU!
    I’m not an editor or anything even close but I do read a lot of fanfiction and ‘beta’ the work of a few to make their stories better.
    I’m a frequent flyer at,, and the grammar girl and now I can add your site to the list of frequently visited places if I’m unsure about something.
    I frequently break the typographic oath myself when correcting for another because my mind sees their but my brain reads there (correctly I might add) but my fingers type they’re. Go figure.
    Any way, thank you :). Now, off to see what else there is to see.

  • tj6james6  On March 22, 2014 at 2:15 am

    Sorry, forgot to tick the notify me button, lol.

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