Years ago I was reading the bestselling A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (on which the 2015 motion picture of the same name, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, is based) and found a typo on one of the first pages. The word the was spelled “th”. How could this be? The book was published by Random House, one of the Big Five! How had all of their copyeditors and proofreaders, not to mention spell checkers, missed it? How had the hundreds of advance copy readers failed to report it?
I told one of the editors here at Wheatmark about my discovery. This editor happened to be a voracious reader. She started circling all the misspellings, typos, or instances of bad grammar that she found in any major publisher’s book she read, and flagging the offending pages with Post-It notes. Invariably she’d have twenty or more notes stuck in a book by the time she finished reading it. She’d then show me each book as further proof of how rare, if not impossible, perfection in editing is. She made her point.
Mathematically, of course, it’s obvious. When you put ten, twenty, or thirty thousand words together, all of which have to relate to one another in precise ways, correctly following hundreds of rules of grammar and syntax, the opportunities for error are astronomical. And that’s before taking into account all the tweaking that authors and editors do, and a host of other higher level editing changes.
I continued reading A Walk in the Woods, now actively looking to find more errors. I don’t remember finding any, though there must have been some. I was impressed. My shock at finding the one typo was replaced by respect for what a good editorial process can accomplish. I’ve never lost that respect. Now every time I read a well-edited book, I’m a bit in awe.
The editorial process major publishers like Random House use to achieve editorial excellence usually involves all these types of professional editing: manuscript evaluation, developmental editing, copyediting, and proofreading. While editorial needs vary from book to book, there’s no substitute for a good editorial process.
By the way, the “The” missing an “e” was probably an error introduced during layout. That’s how it could have been missed by so many readers. It should have been caught during proofreading (the post-layout edit), but even proofreaders aren’t perfect. Don’t skip the proofreading!