Last updated 1 April 2023
In the publishing world, we often talk about corrections being ‘heavy’ or ‘light’. It’s also common to hear frustrations about authors expecting to make ‘too many’ corrections or inexperienced proofreaders introducing ‘unnecessary’ corrections. But how many corrections per page are acceptable and what constitutes ‘heavy’, ‘light’, essential and excess? And what should be done if the number is judged to be ‘too high’?
As is so often the case in editorial matters, it depends – and in more ways than one. Some basic groundrules for this post are that we’re talking about a traditional publishing workflow where text is first copyedited, then typeset or designed, and finally corrected (usually on PDF proofs) by a proofreader. We’re exclusively considering the last of those stages here, so when I refer to ’corrections’, I mean corrections made on a proof to text that has already been copyedited and typeset/designed.
Why should the number of corrections per page be minimised?
First off, let’s establish why the question of minimising corrections per page is even a thing. It isn’t because typesetters and proofreaders are lazy or don’t care about getting things right. There are very good reasons to keep corrections as low as possible. For example:
- Cost: every correction has to be checked, inputted and then checked again. Typesetters and proofreaders are usually paid per page on the basis of a (sometimes formal, sometimes informal) understanding about how many corrections there will be per page. Therefore, a high level of corrections often means an increase to the budget. In some circumstances, a high level of corrections can mean a whole extra round of proofreading is required, which raises the budget even more.
- Accuracy: countless times, I’ve seen corrections lead to new errors being introduced. This means more proofs and more rounds of checking – or, worse, errors making it into the final product.
- Knock-on effects: even when corrections don’t cause errors, they can lead to the introduction of undesirable typesetting issues, such as widows and orphans. If a correction causes a new page to be added, it can affect the entire flow of the book and invalidate the table of contents and the index. This means (you guessed it) yet more reworking and checking.
- Time: any of the above can add to the schedule, which may cause a book to miss key marketing and other deadlines, potentially affecting its profitability and impact.
A basic rule of thumb
When I was writing this post, I dug around in a few editorial manuals to see what they say on the question of the number of corrections per page that should be allowed. However, while they all agree on the principles above, I found them to be remarkably silent on the specifics of the numbers of corrections – which is unsurprising as there are so many variables involved.
When I worked as a project manager of encyclopedias at a major publisher, I picked up that two corrections per page was comfortable, three was okay and four was heavy. Anything over four meant there might be something funny going on.
Since then, throughout my time as a freelance project manager overseeing dozens of millions of words to publication, I’ve found this rule of thumb to be helpful and generally accurate.
However, even this general principle isn’t as simple as it might seem.
But what is a correction?
At this point we need to go a bit meta because there are issues in the text and then there are ways of marking those issues, and they are not the same thing:
- An issue is a problem in a text that needs to be fixed. For example, it might be a single incorrect piece of punctuation, a whole sentence that has been mangled or a poorly placed image.
- A mark is a notation on the proofs that shows how to deal with an issue.
Correction is a loose term that kind of combines both of those things into one. I’m also going to use corrector here to refer to a person (author, proofreader, publisher, whoever) who adds marks to a proof.
The many and varied ways of marking corrections
For all sorts of reasons, there is not a one-to-one relationship between issues and marks. One issue can have multiple marks and one mark can correct multiple issues. There are many variations and options – some of them helpful and some not so helpful – for marking issues that can increase or decrease the mark count. Following are some (non-exhaustive) examples.
One issue, many marks
Some correctors will use two, three or even four marks to indicate a single issue. With apologies to Dickens, Examples 1 and 2 show the same correction marked in two different ways: the first with a single mark and the second with four. Example 2 is manufactured but I see this kind of thing all the time from authors (who, presumably, have had a bad experience with their corrections being ignored or misinterpreted in the past and so, understandably, want to make quadruply sure that their correction is noticed and acted upon as intended).
Many issues, one mark
Where a sentence requires multiple changes to be made or where a series of corrections could be confusing if marked individually, it’s often more sensible to mark a single correction. Where a large passage of text or perhaps a reference list is affected, it can even be best to resubmit the whole corrected portion of text in a new Word document. However, this will mean that many totally separate issues are only counted once.
Very many issues, one mark
Where the same change needs to be made many times, a global change can be marked. This is a single instruction to the typesetter or designer to change all instances of a word or phrase in a specific way (for example, ‘global north’ to ‘Global South’). This can affect the final marks count by dozens, hundreds or even thousands.
One issue with comparison mark
When they make a correction for the sake of consistency, one of my freelance proofreaders often marks a comparison location in the text. For example, if they correct the name of a person, they will highlight a place where the name is correctly spelled and write ‘see above’ or similar. This means that one correction becomes two, but it makes it very easy for me to see why they’ve made the change (and in most cases I’ll delete the comparison highlight with note before sending the proofs on to the typesetter for the corrections to be made in the master set of XML).
One issue with huge implications
Let’s say a section turns out to be in the wrong place and has to be moved to another chapter. This might only need a few marks but may cause havoc with the book’s layout, requiring much re-checking to be done. In such cases, it can be difficult to get any real sense of what those few marks are ‘worth’ compared to other marks.
With PDFs, it is possible to use ‘stamps’ that replicate the BSI proofreading marks (see this page from the Chartered Institute for Editing and Proofreading for some context). The typesetters I work with prefer not to receive corrections in stamp form, so I rarely work with them. However, the BSI symbols are a trusted traditional way of marking up proofs. With stamps, an issue is usually corrected via either two or three marks, as in Example 3. However, sometimes proofreaders have sent me marked-up proofs where stamps have been linked such that multiple marks appear as one (I have yet to find out how they accomplished this!). Stamp marks are also subject to all the variations above (e.g. whether to mark multiple corrections to a single sentence as a single correction or several).
Which method should you use?
I’m not here to tell you which of the above are right and which are wrong. The context will always dictate that (although I will say that when I encounter anything like Example 2, I almost always reduce it to a single marking). It can be a good idea to ask your client or typesetter what they prefer. If in doubt, I would always suggest keeping it simple and using the fewest marks that will be clear.
So, how many corrections per page are acceptable on proofs?
Putting all of the above together, it’s clear that this question is very difficult to answer. For example, let’s say we have a text with 400 issues. The number of markings might be 350 (if one or two of the issues are marked as globals) or many thousand (if the corrector has used two, three or four marks per issue).
So, if you came to this post looking for concrete answers, I’m going to have to disappoint you. However, the above rule of thumb is still useful – it’s just important to have a clear idea in mind of what constitutes a ’correction’. Based on my experience, I would distil all of the above into this rough guide:
A rough guide to assessing proof corrections
When assessing the number of corrections per page, the key thing is issues, not marks. Try to get an idea of the number of unique issues, taking into account the different ways of marking corrections listed above (it’s up to you whether you consider a global change to be one issue or many). Then divide that number by the number of pages. If the result is one or fewer, you’re laughing (and should probably send the copyeditor and typesetter/designer congratulatory notes). Anything around two or three is still good going. Four or more may require further investigation to understand why the level is so high and assess the implications of making so many corrections.
Opinions may differ, however – this is just my view. If you feel differently, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Take a look at this post for pointers on what can increase the number of corrections in a text and how to deal with heavy corrections.