Last updated 1 April 2023
Too many proof corrections can play havoc with a project’s schedule and budget, and can lead to errors being introduced. My previous post looked in detail at why corrections should be minimised and what affects the number of corrections per page. It also offered a rule of thumb for when the number of corrections becomes too many (TLDR: anything above four per page probably needs to be investigated).
Here we’ll look at the question of too-heavy corrections more broadly: firstly, factors that can increase the number of corrections and, secondly, what to do if you decide you have too many.
As before, I’m principally talking here about a traditional publishing workflow where text is first copyedited, then typeset or designed, and finally corrected (usually on PDF proofs) by a proofreader. However, these principles are general and can be adapted to almost any editorial context.
Why do I have too many proof corrections?
It can be easy to jump to conclusions when faced with a set of proofs that is covered in red marks. It must be the author’s fault – they don’t know when to stop making changes. Or it’s the copyeditor’s fault – they clearly didn’t bother doing their job properly.
Sometimes the reality is this simple. But, in my experience, it’s often a blend of factors that contributes to a proof having a large number of corrections. It’s rarely possible to neatly lay the blame at a specific person’s door.
Here are some potential reasons for a proof having heavy corrections, split into categories.
Somebody dropped the ball
Sometimes it really is the case that an individual person messed up. For example:
- The project manager gave the wrong files to the copyeditor, typesetter or designer, or some other issue occurred in the management of the files.
- The copyeditor missed basic things that no copyeditor should ever miss, regardless of the circumstances in which they are working, or they introduced errors.
- The typesetter or designer corrupted the files, didn’t follow the specified template or created other issues while processing the files.
- The author is insisting on making widespread changes to the text despite having been warned at earlier stages that this would not be possible.
- The proofreader is over-correcting the text, perhaps based on their personal preferences.
Resourcing or workflow issues
In some cases, the problem is more systemic. For example:
- The publisher’s commissioning and/or developmental editing process were insufficient, meaning that there were more issues left than the copyeditor could reasonably address.
- The copyeditor, typesetter or designer did a good job as far as they were able but were not granted the necessary resources (time and/or money) to give the text the attention it required.
- The copyeditor, typesetter or designer did not have the necessary expertise to deal with specialist features of the text.
- The guidance provided to the publisher’s copyeditors, typesetters and designers is generally inadequate or unclear, and this has become a rooted problem because nobody is taking ownership of it.
- The project is non-standard, but the publisher’s workflow is set up to handle a narrowly prescribed type of text and cannot easily be adapted to anything unusual.
People may also not coordinate with each other as well as they should. For example:
- Early on, the copyeditor was required to submit edited files for feedback from the publisher and was explicitly told not to do any more work in the meantime. However, they did not receive this feedback in a timely manner and as a result they had to rush to meet the deadline.
- The copyeditor, typesetter or designer did a good job but based on the wrong instructions, as there was a mix-up about which style sheet or template they should use.
- The author was not warned in advance that the number of corrections would need to be limited. They are therefore expecting to be able to make as many corrections as they wish.
Changes in circumstances (aka reality sucks)
And sometimes, the world just conspires to throw a spanner in the works. For example:
- A new publication, law or similar comes out that means the text is no longer current and needs to be revised.
- Somebody, at some point in the process, is unexpectedly unavailable due to illness or some other crisis, and as a result aspects of their job have to be left until later.
- A rightsholder does not supply expected content on time and the text has to be adjusted accordingly.
There aren’t actually too many proof corrections – or the increased number should have been anticipated
It’s also worth considering: do you really have too many proof corrections? Or might the person assessing the level of corrections have an unrealistic idea of how many there should be?
Also note that many of the above factors may lead to a deliberate decision to move forward with the text for the sake of the schedule and make corrections later. For example, the editorial team might be well aware that a new law is coming out that will necessitate changes being made, but may make the considered judgement that it is worth proceeding as the resulting corrections will be heavy but manageable.
What to do if you have too many corrections per page
So, the level of corrections is higher than you’d like and you need to decide what to do next. When I’m dealing with this kind of situation, I find it helpful to think in terms of two categories of consequences: immediate and wider.
The first thing I try to do is to understand what’s going on. I don’t necessarily go into a lot of detail about the whys and wherefores at this point; my goal is just to get a good sense of the people and/or systems that might have contributed to the situation, so I know who to talk to about potential solutions.
There are then four options:
- Suck it up and accept all the corrections.
- Accept some of the excess corrections.
- Reject all of the excess corrections.
- Halt the process and take remedial action.
Let’s go through these in reverse order.
Option 4 is very occasionally needed when the level of corrections (or the impact of a smaller number of corrections) is so drastic that it risks compromising the whole project. In such cases, an appropriate person may be asked to carry out remedial work (potentially at their expense if it has been established that they were at fault). It may then be necessary to recreate the proofs and go through the whole corrections process again.
Option 3 might initially seem the most attractive, and sometimes it is indeed the way to go (e.g. if an author is requesting corrections that would be truly frivolous at this stage or that would contravene basics of the publisher’s design template). This option is in theory the most cost-effective because it avoids the possibility that the typesetter/designer will charge for all the unexpected changes and it should also avoid the need for an extra round of proof checks.
However, it’s also worth thinking about the overhead and/or direct costs involved in identifying which corrections are truly ’excess‘ (if this is even possible), negotiating with the author and any other relevant parties about which corrections to keep, and dealing with any scheduling issues that result from all this lost time. There are also potentially severe intangible costs around losing the goodwill of the author by rejecting their corrections (whatever an author’s contract says, in reality publishers will often decide it’s easier to just accept a mountain of corrections for the sake of harmony).
Option 2 can be a good course of action where corrections can easily be divided into types. It can also be a route to a compromise (e.g. ’we’ll accept these corrections if you’ll agree to abandon those ones’). It may be possible to involve another party (e.g. the copyeditor) in the process of deciding which corrections to accept (again, potentially at their expense if they are demonstrably at fault).
Option 1 may, perhaps counterintuitively, be the best one if a project is on a tight schedule. If the imperative is to get the publication out on time, no matter what, then it may be most efficient to just take the hit, replan everything all in one go and move forward as quickly as possible (avoiding all the negotiations and potential prevarication outlined above for Options 2 and 3). Option 1 will also naturally be the only possibility if the corrections are deemed to be essential to the success of the publication.
Once the immediate rush is over, it makes sense to try to understand the wider issues at play. Could additional or more timely communications have avoided the problem? Do workflows or resourcing need to be looked at? Does anybody need additional training or guidance? Does the organisational culture make people feel psychologically safe to raise issues in a timely manner?
There are almost limitless possibilities here, but the example lists of reasons above may help by providing pointers. Over the years, careful honing of my workflows has meant that I rarely encounter overly heavy corrections, but there are always opportunities to improve communications and guidance.
Some final thoughts
It’s important, I believe, not to be too zealous in trying to reduce the number of corrections in a proof. Necessary corrections that genuinely enhance a text or remove a potential stumbling block for readers should always be carefully considered. At the same time, though, a balance must be struck: the long-established traditional publishing workflow – where at each stage a text undergoes finer and fewer corrections – is a bulwark when it comes to managing the core trinity of cost, quality and scheduling.
Every project is different, so project-specific decisions must always be made concerning what to do about ‘too many’ proof corrections. However, careful reviews of such incidents – and perhaps even proactive reviews of the categories above even when no incident has arisen – should mean they happen as infrequently as possible.