Sculpting a masterpiece

We talked earlier in my series of posts relaying my talk from the Life, the Universe, and Everything conference about the relationship between an editor and a writer and the general process of how a book goes from manuscript to published book. I’m not going to rehash that–that’s covered in that talk.

But I wanted to address the misconception that a book isn’t “well-edited” if a reader has found a typo. I’ve heard that a lot in my time as an editor, and used to say it a lot when I didn’t understand the editing process either, and I just want to lay the idea that “editing a book” means that all an editor does is look at a finished, beautiful manuscript from a writer, change a few typos, and call it good.

Catching typos and grammatical errors is the job of an editor, sure. We certainly don’t want typos in the finished manuscript! But it’s not their only job. As you can tell from those posts about the process, it’s the polishing end of a long process of sculpting with an ever-finer tool. First the writer starts with this large hunk of stone, and tips and taps and sculpts. It’s a beautiful piece of art. It could be a statue of a Grecian god. But wait! there’s a rough hunk at the back here that could be sculpted–did you do that on purpose? His nose is missing–shouldn’t he have a nose? Etc. And then the line editing might be thought of as chipping off the little bits that have been clinging that we couldn’t get to until we had the overall shape down. 

Copyediting and proofreading, the processes that most lay people think is all an editor like me does, is like taking a fine piece of sandpaper (or whatever a sculptor uses–I admit ignorance on this, but let’s just go with the imagery) to really smo
oth off the finish of the piece, and give it that beautiful sheen that proclaims, “this is a finished piece of art, ready to be seen by the world.” (Keeping in mind that we’re talking the Classical idea of beauty, not something intentionally left rough. Go with me here.)

So when a typo shows up in a published book, am I mortified? Indeed. It appalls me that I could have looked at that problem again and again and not seen it, and not just me, but that two other editors–the copyeditor and the proofreader, usually freelancers–and then myself again, looking at the final galley, could have missed something that is so obvious to me when I can’t do anything about it.

But I also have to have a little mercy on myself, because when you think about it, the tiniest flaw in a great sculpture doesn’t negate the sculpture’s greatness. How long have I looked at that manuscript? How many times? Was a flaw introduced because I sanded too hard? I just did that in a recent proofread–in trying to fix something, introducing more problems that thankfully the proofreader caught and I’m entering the changes this very day.

Which is what made me think of this post. Hopefully, not one single error will remain in this book when I’m done going through the proofreader’s changes to the manuscript. But if there are one or two tiny little errors, have mercy on the editor.
It was just a tiny piece of a large masterpiece, and perfectionists that we are, we’re probably already mortified that the error made it through on our watch.