An Editor’s Musings on Perfection

Perfectionistic. With super high standards. Do you know a writer or editor who takes pride in perfection? Perhaps these traits are why they fell into copy editing and proofreading in the first place.

Before they dived (reluctantly or enthusiastically?) into the nitty-gritty of the skillsets, maybe they couldn’t help but eagle-eye in on inconsistencies as they skimmed articles on major news sites. Like predators targeting their prey.

Maybe, more often than they’d expect, they found themself spotting troubled typos, repetitive irrelevancies, run-on sentences, or dodgy formatting in long-form printed work. (Which surely should’ve been put through the grinder of a more rigorous editorial process than web stuff, right?)

That’s why they are good at editing in the first place; they notice these things. To varying degrees, these things bother them. The inconsistency, especially, eats them up a little bit on the inside — what with the unpredictability and messiness of it all! They just deeply desire for every dot and dash, every ink drop or pixel cluster, to be… perfect. 100% perfect. Is that so much to ask for?

Or, if copy editing and proofreading is their occupation, perhaps it might just be the case that they got into it because they were kind of reluctant or scared to write much, so they thought it’d be easier (and more satisfying) to polish and “perfect” the work of others.

In this piece, I don’t mean to bash editors or proofreaders! I’m an editor myself. And irrespective of Grammarly (and other AI grammar correctors), the human component of copy editing and proofreading will always add some value to a project. After all, someone’s gotta follow those omniscient style guides to a tee.

But even if you turn in a project without having done so, ask yourself, dear reader (whether you’re a writer, line editor, proofreader, or whatever), does it honestly really matter that much if the product is not 100% perfect? Does “File version 5.5 (edited) final FINAL” have to be utterly perfect? Every time? And this is coming from an occasional perfectionist! Maybe “a recovered perfectionist” is a better way to put it.

I used to get anal (definitely no pun intended!) over how Google Docs weirdly converted that em dash to a hyphen for no reason (and now it’s too late to change it), how a second editor introduced quite a few errors, how I forgot to add a full stop to the end of a list item, how I slipped in some styling from a different guide, or how I should’ve avoided repeating a certain word so many times in my writing. (That last one is one of my pet peeves — much time is spent googling “[word] + synonym.”) And so on.

But the more I edit and proofread, and the more I write and read, the more I realise that a project does not ever have to be 100% perfect. Ever. Even if it’s your own writing that you’ve got plenty of time to reread and reread. Even if it’s “(edited version 8.5 FINAL).”

In fact, I think there’s a lot of charm and humanness in the messiness and inconsistencies of a piece that’s, like, 81% perfect instead of 100% perfect (does that even exist?). There’s honesty and vulnerability. It’s almost like the project happily accepts that it will always be a work in progress — kinda like we are.

I dunno, but it sometimes rubs me the wrong way when any kind of creative work is too polished, too “perfect,” unwilling to deviate, experiment, or tolerate any so-called imperfections — by-the-book “perfect.” (Who wrote the book? And language is always evolving.) It feels too calculated and robot. Like it was executed by an overly evolved and anal AI writer, editor, and proofreader, and not a real person.

Real people are not perfect, so why should their creative work be? Life and humans are messy and flawed. Is it any wonder that communication and writing are, ultimately, the same?

If you still feel uneasy, just remember: nobody’s life is on the line. (Except if we’re talking about that often-cited “Let’s eat, grandma” comma.) Nobody’s life is on the line if you dropped in a serial comma, went for one too many semicolons that you started to worry that you might appear pretentious, used a “z” instead of an “s,” or inserted a hyphen into a predicative adjective. After all, it’s not brain surgery!

(As a side note, however, if you believe you have a kind of OCD or anxiety that impacts your life and work, an ACES article called “Editing with OCD, or anxiety in general” may help you out.)

Furthermore, setting aside the tomes of grammar and editorial style, a lot of the skill is subjective, anyway. Even a lot of grammarians bicker over “correct” usage. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, languages are forever changing and morphing.

Perhaps it seems strange for an editor to extoll the beauty of “imperfect” writing. And perhaps it’s one reason I’m finding myself drawn to writing over copy editing and proofreading. Without authors, editors and proofreaders would be out of business. Meanwhile, a well-researched, well-written piece has the power to inspire, comfort, and support. But it’s always nice to have another set of eyes to help tidy up those unruly commas, hyphens, and nominalisations! And that passive language!

In summary, even though most blogs and web articles should probably be 1,000 or more words for SEO purposes, I’m gonna leave this as it is. Because, like me, it’s imperfect. And that’s okay.

Continue Reading: Perfecting Your Craft as a Freelance Writer


Written by Monique Moate