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Kate Johnson

No Perfection Unless You’re a Sunset

Desert Landscape at Sunset
Alexey Morozov ©

Those who read are an exacting bunch. We grew up with professionally proofread books, back when publishers could still afford to pay someone to make sure no spelling mistake got by, no errant comma, sneaky typo, sloppy grammar or lazy punctuation. We had high expectations of our reading material. Now we tend to notice when something on a page is wrong; it’s jarring. “How in heaven’s name,” we exclaim, with a sense of superiority, “did they miss that one!”

Go to work for a weekly newspaper. It will humble you in a hurry. As painstakingly as you manage all the information that goes through your hands, there will be errors: minor, glaring, and everything in between. There will be names misspelled in spite of your best efforts; there will be wrong names altogether! There will be numbers dropped, miscounted, mixed up. You will look at something twice and not see that it’s not what it should be. You will have trouble understanding something as written, scratch your head, sort it as best you can, and still manage to mess it up. When, after the newspaper is printed, you flip through it for the pleasure of seeing the result of your labour, you will surely find one godforsaken glitch that will make your teeth grind in frustration.

You’ll cringe at the injustice of it all. You worked so diligently and still it’s not perfect? Perhaps, you’ll tell yourself (small comfort that it is), most readers won’t notice. You’ll hope it’s obvious that for every mistake that gets into the paper, 100 mistakes never made it. Yet certain blunders must be corrected and apologized for. You screwed up? You’ve got to straighten your spine and carry on.

Mostly you wonder how this could happen, considering how careful you were. Eventually you come to accept that it just does; there seems to be no getting around it when you’re handling thousands of words a week and dozens of photographs, and it all has to be done yesterday. There’s a long list of things to do and a deadline to meet. You don’t have a spare moment to wallow in regret; it’s already time to get busy putting the next issue together. You do the pick-yourself-up, dust-yourself-off, start-all-over-again thing and vow to do better. You’ll pay closer attention! You’ll double-check twice instead of once!

These days, when a stupid mistake jumps out at you from the pages of a novel, or the shamefully muddled headline on the front page of a daily makes you shake your head, you leap right down off your snooty horse, sadly aware that “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” You’re slightly less quick to judge, to gloat, to delight in the evidence of someone else’s imperfection. (Only slightly; old habits don’t dissolve so easily.) You know that you, yourself, are going to get another turn on the merry-go-round of editors’ nightmares. There’s no getting off it.


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7 Comments on “No Perfection Unless You’re a Sunset”

  • Loved this, Kate. After 12 years editing government documents and news releases, I also came to the realization that perfection is achieved only at great cost, usually to the editor. Editing should make everything better or even much better; perfection is an unrealistic dream.

  • Tim Green


    You touch on a key concept here… the relevant life of the material being edited. In a newspaper, an error one day is (hopefully) quickly forgotten when the next day’s edition appears. No sense in wallowing in regret as you put it. A published book, however, has a long relevant life; errors will continue to upset sensitive readers for many years so these require more care. The worst examples I have seen are errors in cast bronze plaques on historical sites and statues; they have extremely long relevant lives. In one case, someone had carefully added an errata plaque instead of re-casting the original bronze.

  • Anita Jenkins


    Amen. I remember trying to convince some indignant friends that our local movie reviewer (when we had such things) was excellent even though he had mixed up a painter’s name (Rembrandt instead of Renoir, or something like that). I explained – in vain – that the writer would come home from a viewing and quickly write a few paragraphs, hit the Send button and the text would show up in the paper the next morning. I am amazed that there are not more errors than there are.

  • Janine Harker


    Amen. It was worse in the days of primitive computing power, when making “just one more change” risked crashing the system and losing hours of layout and design work done by others. A grammatical or spelling error was a small price to pay to avoid the wrath of the design editor when the go-to-press deadline was approaching! I, too, take a breath when I come across small errors and remember the angst that came with missing—or finding—those errors during the design process.

  • In Edmonton, we recently hosted a networking event between writers and editors. I mentioned in a discussion that if a potential editor for your work promises you perfection, you should run in the other direction.

  • I’m glad to see you all taking this just as it was meant!
    When my twenty-something son read it, he said “It sounds like you’re apologizing.”
    That, I am not! No sirree!
    We only have human eyes, and not reaching perfection is not through lack of making every possible best effort. No apologies, in my opinion, are required … even though in spite of ourselves we may often feel quite apologetic!

  • Anita Jenkins


    A highly experienced editor, Lee d’Anjou, used to say, “There is no such thing as a perfect book.”

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