Can a Computer Replace the Skills of an Editor?

At my last job, I was asked point-blank why in this day and age of advanced technology and general access to computers would any company need the services of an editor? I was, for lack of a better word, dumbfounded.

First, why would anyone ask a fellow employee to justify whether his or her position were truly necessary? Second, who could possibly think that a computer could do the job of an editor? Yes, computers can do some pretty wonderful things for writers and non-writers alike. They can spot basic grammar problems and even suggest corrections, find spelling errors, and on occasion spot places where a word may be missed. Not exactly foolproof. But they can’t rewrite poorly written copy, find garbled grammar, and fix word usage problems.

Case in point: The following sentence has a number of problems that your computer won’t identify but will make you look less than stellar. Would you rather rely on your laptop or the eagle eye of an editor?

Thomas ran form the back of the filed and caught the flier but he dropped it when he tipped.

Horrible sentence. I’m embarrassed to even use it as an example. Poorly written — spellchecker doesn’t care. Transposed letters — the words are correct (form, filed, flier, tripped) even though they don’t make sense in this sentence; spellchecker doesn’t care about that either. Missing comma — missed by spellchecker. These are the types of errors you will find in countless documents every day because we as a society have come to rely on spellchecker far too much.

So do you think companies need the services of editors, copyeditors, or proofreaders? I think the example above sufficiently answers that question.

The High Price of Cutting Corners

Some things have to be learned the hard way. But, if you’re a publisher, this is a case of “you should have known better.”

In 2008, Princeton University Press recalled 4,000 copies of Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore’s Eastern District, by Peter Moskos, published May 1. It was the entire initial press run, all 4,000 copies. It was discovered that the book was riddled with more than 90 spelling and grammar errors among its 245 pages. Hmm. How could this have happened? After all, this is Princeton University Press. Reputable. Respectable. Dependable.

And evidently, caught cutting corners.

Writers write stories. Editors edit stories. But copyeditors fix mistakes. And if publishers get cheap, the end product suffers and readers pay the price. The press pulled every copy of the book, corrected it, reprinted it, and redistributed it to stores at a considerable cost, but the price of releasing the book to the public with so many errors would have been even more. This entire situation could have been averted simply by paying the wages required by experienced copyeditors to get the job done right the first time.

It simply comes down to money. “According the Peter Dougherty, the press’s director, the manuscript had been given to an inexperienced copyeditor who failed to do the job properly.”

This isn’t a surprise to most of us who work as freelancers in the publishing industry. Publishers have been getting away with paying freelance copyeditors and proofreaders below scale for years, sometimes as lows as the teens or twenties at best. Experienced copyeditors simply won’t work for that kind of pay, and it shouldn’t be any surprise when a publisher pays a copyeditor that kind of rate that they get what they pay for: a plethora of mistakes.

Note to publishers: your end users deserve the best product possible. That’s what they are paying for; that’s what they expect. And it’s your name on the product, so why wouldn’t you want it to be perfect? Pay your staff to make sure it is. Copyediting counts.