Why perfectionism in publishing is unrealistic
We’ve all read those book reviews that comment that a book needs more editing. Maybe you’ve even found an error in a book or published material yourself. But the problem with expecting perfection in a human product is there are so many problems with that expectation.
Aside from the fact that perfection is unachievable, perfectionism tends to be bad for human health and can even lead to suicide.[i] It is also unachievable.
On a side not here, I found a bit of humour in the fact that we can’t even agree on what perfectionism is and whether or not it actually helps or hinders people’s psychological health as outlined in The many faces of perfectionism by Etienne Benson on the American Psychology Association website. https://www.apa.org/monitor/nov03/manyfaces . Seems a bit relativistic to me.
Let’s start with the area of editing. I edit in English. A large section of the publishing industry is done in the English language. The English language has no hard and fast rules. I know. That’s shocking. But it is true.
First, when you break it down, there are different dialects depending on the country, location, and industry. Each of these dialects have different spellings, pronunciations, and grammar conventions. NO one speaks or writes English perfectly. No one. What’s equally challenging is no one can seem to agree on what perfect English looks or sounds like. Think British versus United States versus Canadian. In Canada, there are dialects informed by French, combining US and UK conventions, and there are different accents. Try putting a Newfoundlander with Torontonians or a person from Saskatchewan and a person from British Columbia in a room together. Their accents, language, spelling, and conventions might make it difficult for these people to fully understand each other. Ever heard of a bunny hug or a gaffer? I’m not talking about a furry rabbit creature or a chief lighting technician. In Saskatchewan, a bunny hug is a hoodie, and in Newfoundland, a gaffer is an (arguably) Irish derived word meaning a young boy, especially one who assists older men.[ii]
There are different theoretical schools of thought when it comes to grammar, too. Many different theories and beliefs inform opinions about what grammar should be. Two of the main theories can be categorized as “traditional” and “transformational.”[iii]
Standardized English grammar was started approximately in the 1700s. However, grammar wasn’t as ‘standard’ as everyone might think. There were many so called experts who established their versions of rules. Pretty soon schools and industries adopted their own variations. Today, there are style manuals for countries, industries, institutions, and smaller (sometimes larger) guides as varied as there are authors and publishing houses. Manuals and guides attempt to standardize format, punctuation, spelling and vocabulary, and grammar among other elements. They are most useful when ensuring a company’s brand or a government’s language and conventions, for example, are consistent across all published content. These manuals and guides are not exhaustive, and an editor’s job is to familiarize themselves with these standards and make decisions for clients to ensure a consistent, professional publication is created.
Some schools of thought believe that grammar shouldn’t be standardized. Structural linguists in the 20th century believed that trying to establish a “proper English” language system wasn’t something to strive for. This transformational grammar theory considers that if a native speaker utters a sentence, that speaker is speaking a valid dialect.[iv] Speakers of a language tend to internalize the conventions and patterns within a language dialect unconsciously.[v] Have you heard the name Noam Chomsky? He is prevalent structural linguist and is credited with first coming up with the theory of transformational grammar.[vi] He considered something called language acquisition, or how people (especially children) understand and speak or write language without studying specific grammar or language rules. In widely oversimplified and not 100 percent accurate terms, transformational grammar is kind of a theory of evolution of language.
Publishing is a human process of turning ideas into a product such as a book. The keyword here is human. Authors and writers can, in my opinion, be classified as artists, which adds an additional level of complexity to writing style and expression that challenges and often subverts norms established by society or industry. This artistic licence needs to be honoured with each and every published product, but also balanced with the business of publishing which relies a great deal on image and reputation of the final product.
The printing process can be an imperfect process as well. Have you ever worked with a computer or phone? Of course you have, you’re reading this. How often do these human creations glitch? Ever printed something and the printer was misaligned or you ran out of ink? Computers and printers are involved in the final printing of a physical product like a book. I have heard of and experienced some “glitches” myself such as missed characters, cut off or angled text on pages, blurry images, or even whole sections of other people’s books printed inside an author’s book. It is a common sentiment in the writing community that the best way to find errors is to publish your book. At each stage, many people are involved in checking a book for any number of concerns, but that’s the thing. People. Humans make errors.
For these reasons, whenever I see a review that states a book needs editing or find errors in a published product, I don’t feel the need to punish the author or editor for it. Do books need to be edited? Absolutely. An author’s work is made stronger by a second set of eyes with a passion for language and/or an understanding of the publishing industry. Should a product like a book have quality? Yes. But what is quality? It isn’t perfection. Should a book be perfect? No. It’s impossible.
[i] The many faces of perfectionism by Etienne Benson American Psychology Association .https://www.apa.org/monitor/nov03/manyfaces
[ii] Dictionary of Newfoundland English. Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site https://www.heritage.nf.ca/dictionary/a-z-index.php#1861
[iii] The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation by Bryan A. Garner Published by The University of Chicago Press
[iv] See ii
[v] Unconscious language learning University of Cambridge https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/unconscious-language-learning
[vi] Syntactic Structures by Noam Chomsky Published by The Hague: Mouton