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Writer etiquette: Is it OK to point out typos in others' writing?

Oops! Did you just pick out a glitch in another writer’s grammar? How about a wrong wording, a spelling stumble, or a typographical transgression? What should you do about it?

Writers often are quite skilled at editing and proofreading. (At least, we can usually spot errors in others’ work fairly readily. Our own material may be a different story altogether.) As wordsmiths, we tend to possess pretty adept language skills. Many of us aim earnestly to be careful readers.

That’s a two-edged sword.

No one’s perfect. How rare is it for a writer to page through an entire book, magazine, or blog post without catching a single grammatical, spelling, or typographical error? They sort of jump out at the trained eye.

Writer etiquette:  Is it OK to point out typos in others' writing?

Gaffes are almost a given. So what’s a writer to do?

Maybe it’s a good idea to consider these questions before donning one’s volunteer editor hat and lobbing critiques (or helpful suggestions) at other writers’ work.

  1. Who is likely to read the item? A private text message, email, or letter is one thing. An online article or publicly available book is another matter.

  1. Is the error found in a published piece? A draft or manuscript is easily mended. A printed or posted item may not be. Spoken words (even recorded ones) are virtually impossible to correct. Plus, people are generally more forgiving of misspeaks than of misprints. Is it worth the potential push-back to point out an error?

  1. Is it too late for a fix? If a correction isn’t an option, why raise the issue? The proverbial ship has sailed.

  1. How well do you know the writer? If it’s a close friend, a family member, or a trusted colleague, a quiet correction may be well received. If the flub comes from a student or a subordinate, then your feedback should be expected. On the other hand, if you’ve spotted a typo on a random blog or in an eBook by an unfamiliar author, you cannot possibly anticipate the potential response. It’s also possible that the flaw entered the picture from an editor’s or headline writer’s desk, rather than at the hands of the actual writer.

  1. How bad is the misstep? And is it actually a mistake at all? Is this a case of alternate spellings (such as “color” and “colour,” “favorite” and “favourite,” or “airplane” and “aeroplane”)? If the author is British, the second forms are considered correct. If he or she is American, the first ones are right. Here’s an aside: Sometimes skilled writers break grammatical or spelling rules on purpose, simply to emphasize a point or create a certain effect. It’s called “poetic license.” (Who’d a thunk it?)

  1. What is your motivation for bringing up the typo? This is a matter of self-examination. Be honest. Are you aiming to save the writer from potential embarrassment, or do you hope somehow to score personal points or a prideful uptick? Those attitudes are not likely to go over well. It’s a content typo, not a reader’s ego trip.

  1. How do you plan to mention the error? Private communication is always the best avenue for such a message. A public post critique, a pointed book review, or a comment in a crowded room are never appropriate for airing others’ errors.

  1. How will you phrase your observation? Graciousness and courtesy count for plenty among fellow writers. Snarky or superior-sounding comments are off-putting. Kind observations tend to be more welcome. Also, it’s best to stay focused, pointing out the exact location of the apparent slip-up and steering clear of judgmental or generalizing statements. Remember: You’re just calling attention to a single blooper, not trying to school the writer.

  1. Are you prepared for a less-than-positive reaction from the writer? Many people respond defensively to criticism, no matter how gently it is presented. Hey, it’s possible. The author may or may not consider your input, but that’s not your concern. The bottom line is simple: If you are not the editor or publisher, it’s not your job to fix what’s broken. That’s up to the writer.

  1. What if someone finds a boo-boo in one of your works someday? This isn’t a far cry for most of us. Unless you have a foolproof editor, it’s a possibility. Grammar- and spell-check programs don’t catch everything. And no writer is a 24/7 Hawkeye. Most of us (if we’re lucky) have a few trusted colleagues or confidantes who secretly and tactfully alert us to dreaded typos when they appear. Such folks are like gold to us.

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10 questions to ask before hiring an editor for your book manuscript

Hiring an editor feels like a daunting prospect to most aspiring authors. Choosing the right editorial professional can be a critical and costly step. Certain criteria come into play, as the writer evaluates potential candidates.

Consider these 10 key questions before picking an editor for your pre-published book.

Frequently, professional editors will present much of this information on their websites or in their own promotional materials. If not, these queries merit discussion.

1. What is the editor's educational background?

What degrees does the editor possess? In what fields? An archaeology degree might be useful, if you are offering a book on Roman ruins. But an academic background in journalism, literature, or writing is likely to apply more to hands-on editing.

2. What relevant experience does the editor possess?

Professional experience is critical.  On what sorts of projects has the editor worked? A fiction editor may not be ready to tackle a medical treatise. A technical editor might be less-than-equipped to polish poetry. And a textbook editor could be at a loss to evaluate a novel’s plotline, dialogue, scene descriptions, or character development.

3. Is the editor willing and able to provide samples?

Sample works are a must, including published works. Ideally, the editor is also able to provide actual mark-ups, so you can see what sorts of changes he or she is likely to make on a manuscript. Do the editorial changes focus on facts, grammar, typographical errors, or other concerns?

4. What services does the editor offer?

Editing services may include content correction, fact-checking, and preparation for production. Proofreading may be separate. Not every editor offers proofreading, and not all proofreaders edit. It pays to ask ahead of time.

5. Will the editor present client references?

An experienced editor ought to be willing to offer names and contact information of previous clients, who can attest to his or her abilities and quality of service.

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6. Who are the editor's existing clients?

Here’s another key concern. It’s a good idea to find out who an editor’s current clients are, even just to eliminate the possibility of a conflict of interest or confusion. If your book focuses on a specific topic (such as a current event, a how-to, or a pinpointed fiction niche), you will want to know your editor won’t juggling two very similar projects.

7. Will the editor agree to a written contract?

The days of the simple handshake or verbal agreement are long gone. A written contract should be a basic assumption for professional editorial services. You may want to be leery of any editor unwilling to take this step.

8. Does the editor agree to clear deadlines?

The calendar counts. Even if you’ve been working on your beloved manuscript for years, pinning down the editor to actual dates is a reasonable expectation. Exact dates for completing various steps of the editing process should go in the written contract.

9. Can the editor stick to confidentiality?

This should also be spelled out in the contact. Your pre-published book is your secret, and the editor must keep it so.

10. Does the editor's pricing seem legitimate and reasonable?

Exact pricing for manuscript editing may be hard to pinpoint. Some editors charge by the page, while others bill by the hour. Ask around, and do some online research to find current price ranges. A too-cheap editor is a red flag, but a too-costly one may be risky as well.

Where can you find a suitable editor?

Networking is essential. Ask other authors for referrals. Check with a respected literary agent. Inquire with any publishing contacts you might have. Then double-check details, researching each name you receive.

What about asking for free editing?

Asking a friend to read a manuscript for free could be somewhat helpful, particularly in the early stages. Begging a local creative writing teacher, literature professor, or journalist for a read-through can be useful too. (Warning: These options may be off-putting. Plenty of wordsmith types don’t actually welcome such time-consuming and possibly awkward requests.) But, if you find someone who is both good with words and willing to pore over your pages, it might be worthwhile.

Hey, an extra set of eyes usually can’t hurt, right?

Maybe not. However, plenty of authors can relate stories of receiving all manner of inappropriate content comments and suggestions from fellow writers, writing groups, and free readers. More than a few have been surprised to find actual editors undoing the specific changes these folks made, based on input from their own amateur friends and colleagues.

Plus, these freebie editing options usually cannot compare to the scrutiny, objectivity, and thoroughness a skilled and trained professional editor can provide. In many cases, the expenditure may be well worth it.

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Do you really need an editor for your book manuscript?

Let’s suppose you have finished writing your book. Maybe you are nearly done. At long last, you are polishing the manuscript. Perhaps you’ve spent years giving birth to this work, marked down your memoirs, written your lifelong research, or simply spent the month of November participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

Is an editor worth it?

Will you have to come up with hundreds of dollars (or more) to pay an editor to check, correct, and clean up your book before you can send it to a potential publisher?

Publishing plans vary, and so do editorial practices.

Traditional publishers routinely require their own (usually in-house) editorial services before putting books into production. That’s a given. Even so, many authors hire editors to help them whip their works into shape before submitting them to publishers. Often, literary agents suggest this step, or even provide editorial references.

Subsidy and vanity publishers may or may not offer editing. Either way, authors generally have to pay for some or all of that part of the process, whether the publishers or the authors actually hire the editors.

Self-publishing plans are collectively a different animal altogether. Most often, self-publishing authors are responsible for making sure their works are print-worthy and ready for publication. Editing one’s own work thoroughly is a difficult prospect (even for those of us who have trained and worked as professional editors). It’s easy to miss mistakes, especially as writers tend to read what we think we have written, rather than what actually appears on the page.

We all have blind spots when we evaluate our own content. Extra input can be helpful. Besides, grammatical and typographical errors can be sneaky!

Does quality count, when it comes to your published book?

Once a book is out there, it lingers long. How important will it be to you, as the by-lined author, that the content is correct? Will you care if your fiction plot rings true, your research is accurate and clearly presented, or your poetry is well constructed? If these things matter to you, then hiring an editor may be the safest bet.

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