Two pairs of eyes: why do we edit and when do we stop?

A red biro lying on a piece of paper with typed text on it. Some words have been marked up with the red pen.

What we need to share with people outside publishing

Why do we edit?

Twice recently I have been surprised by the disgruntled reaction of my rowing crewmates when I repeated their safety-critical checks (the usual checks before embarking, and a check that boats were tightly strapped to a trailer before setting out). Most rowers understand the importance of these checks and will ask someone else to double-check if nobody does so spontaneously, and it struck me that no editor would raise an eyebrow at this rule either.

In publishing our editorial errors won’t cause a mile of motorway tailback or require the emergency services, but we know that the potential consequences of a serious oversight are expensive. I and my colleagues at Oriel Square, and all the people we work with in educational publishing, understand that two pairs of eyes are a minimum.

Outside publishing, this is less obvious. Most people instinctively grasp that you can’t mark your own homework or set your own penalties for unethical behaviour in office, but confident writers or passionate content creators do occasionally take offence when they discover that the publishing process involves several people commenting on or amending their work. It’s always worth explaining to new authors how publishing works and why. An online search will throw up hundreds of explanations of the purpose of development editing, line editing, copy-editing and proofreading, as well as why you need an editor, which suggests that our work is not widely understood.

Everything needs editing…

Editing is needed in all areas of publishing: in trade publishing, in learned journals – where academics sometimes fail to see the difference between information-dense prose and jumbled incomprehensibility – and especially in self-publishing, where online sales have made it possible for some truly dreadful works and a variety of scams to emerge with barely a single pair of eyes having looked at them, let alone two.

In Oriel Square’s field of educational publishing, it’s vital for teachers and students to know that the resources they rely on are clear, engaging, inclusive, relevant and above all correct – all of which can only be assured by attention from more than one person.

Editing oversights I’ve noticed in fiction include, in two separate novels, minor characters whose names change partway through. In an excellent recent popular science book I repeatedly stumbled over clunky phrasing. I don’t want to diss my fellow editors here: I think it’s likely that the authors handed over wads of bad writing, and the published versions have been vastly improved. This illustrates a further point about editing: no publication can ever be flawless, and it requires more and more effort to make smaller and smaller improvements as work proceeds.

…but not too much

The impossibility of achieving perfection is another aspect of editing that is not always understood outside publishing, so it’s definitely worth explaining this to new authors or clients at the start of a project. It’s also a good idea to have a word with yourself about diminishing returns occasionally too! Good editors naturally want to work on a project until it’s faultless. If this isn’t cured the first time you discover minor errors in a publication that you pored over for many hours, it should be trained out of you by the increasing professionalisation of editing, skilled project management and tighter control of timelines and costs. But remember that once you’ve grasped this you need to stay on the right side of the line – a final twitch of the straps and twist of the hatches before signing off the proofs is surely always a good idea. What do you think?

Oriel Square logo, saying 'Oriel Square, Strategy Research Publishing'

Helen Payne is an Editorial Manager at Oriel Square. She works on a wide variety of educational resources, specialising in secondary science.

Oriel Square works with companies big and small to create high-quality, inspiring content to deliver transformation through education. Our team can support you with end-to-end publishing services, or jump in at any point in a print or digital publishing project. Get in touch, read more on our blog or follow us on Twitter to find out more.

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