You hired an editor who worked with you for weeks, perhaps months, helping you transform your first draft into a polished manuscript. Your sentences are crisp. Your paragraphs communicate your message in your voice without awkward phrases, redundant points, or vagueness. Now your editor suggests you hire a proofreader. And you’re wondering why. Why do you need a proofreader? The manuscript should be perfect, shouldn’t it?
Well, no. (It will probably never be perfect.)
An editor’s job is to collaborate with authors to help them communicate well. What that entails depends on the writer. I work with seasoned professional writers, new writers, non-writers (business people, service providers, teachers, and healers), and folks with varying degrees of English language knowledge. The work I do is creative and collaborative with a dash of rule following.
But it’s not proofreading.
I know some folks assume a typo or missing word means the editor did not do her job.
Those people don’t understand what good editors do.
So, do you need a proofreader?
A better question may be whether you want proofreader. But here’s the thing. You need a proofreader if you are a perfectionist who can’t bear the thought of a single error—even if it’s an error only you notice or care about.
As a recovering perfectionist, I can tell you, perfection is worth aiming for, but it should not be your goal. If you work too hard to achieve perfection, you’ll almost always sacrifice something else (like your sanity).
The purpose of writing is effective communication. A writer’s primary goal is to connect with a specific audience. You may want to educate, inspire, comfort, or convince your reader. If you write fiction, you want to entertain and tell a great story. If you’re a memoirist, your to tell your true story in a creative, engaging way.
Your editor will help you do that. And to help you do that, she will likely read your manuscript several times.
Which side of readers’ brains do you want to engage?
Don’t get me wrong. Attention to detail—the kind needed to spot typos, missing commas, and the like—is a good skill for an editor to have. As an editor of technical reports, I’m often praised for my attention to detail.
But when I edit books, technical details are not my focus. I use the other side of my brain first, because the books I edit are not dry technical pieces.
Two-sided brains are the reason you may need (that is, want) to hire a proofreader, even if your editor has eagle eyes.
Why? Well, try to do something creative perfectly. If you’re a creative type, you know aiming for perfection can be so stifling that you stay stuck in your head, unable to express yourself fully.
As you create, your brain fills in gaps here and there. We all do this when we know what we want to see. The phenomena is called “filling in,” which doesn’t sound very technical, but it has been widely studied.
I used to get upset when I’d spend hours on a complex editing project only to have someone notice a typo. But over time, I noticed that technically perfect writing is often boring. It can even be bad.
And writing that inspires, intrigues, motivates, or engages—writing I’d rather read—isn’t spoiled if it’s not perfect.
Perfection is the enemy of done
When I first heard someone say perfection is the enemy of done, I was both inspired and relieved.
Almost every book has at least one “error.” I’m not referring to factual errors, but the kinds of errors proofreaders fix. Most have more than one, and in many cases, you won’t notice them. Your brain fills in gaps as well.
That’s not to say you should settle for sloppy writing. Too many errors will distract readers from your message or cause them to question your credibility. But the inevitable few are usually harmless.
So, as I tell my authors, if you’ve gone through rounds of creative editing, and you love the way your message is presented but are still going to lie awake at night fearing a bad review if there’s a word missing or misspelled, hire a proofreader—ideally someone who has not read your work before—if you can afford to.
If not, trust your creation. Share your story! If you wait for it to be perfect, it may never be told.