July 2nd, 2010

One of the sweetest moments in an author’s life (well, her work life, anyway) is that moment when the printed book arrives in the mail—perhaps an advance copy, or the weighty box of author copies, destined for friends and reviewers. From the signing of a contract to finished printed copy can take a year or more, depending on the scope of the work, and here, finally, is tangible proof that you did something. You can pick it up! Turn its pages. It’s a Thing, and you made it. Naturally, you want to show it off to some friend who might admire it and say appreciative things. It’s basking time, after all.

I remember such moment, with such a book, and such a friend. The friend asked to see the book, and I handed it over. Friend opened the book to a random page in the middle, glanced down, and said, “What’s a ‘hoilday’?”

Um…. that would be a “holiday,” mistyped. It wasn’t the book’s title, or a main character’s name. It was only a photo caption. But still I felt bad about it, and of course I was bummed that it was the first thing the friend had seen! Though somehow it often seems to work out that way. You want to say, “Yes, but look how many words are spelled correctly!” though that just comes off as desperate.

An author checks her manuscript before sending it in. Computer spellcheckers help, of course. The editor checks it too (depending on the size and nature of the work, perhaps several editors), and then so does a copy editor, and sometimes also a proofreader. Copy edited pages might come back to the author who can check them again. The process is different with different publishers, but several people look over every manuscript.

So how do typos get through? I know I was a lot more critical of typos when I was an enthusiastic reader who had never published herself. My gosh, I’d think, what boob let that slip by? Were the people all drunk or asleep? But now, while I can’t put into words why typos get by, I know that they do. They do even when several very competent, careful, caring people all check the same page. Whatever the reason is, it is not (necessarily!) that the people involved are not good at what they do, or that they aren’t doing their best. In terms of inevitability, typos are up there before death, but after taxes (because some organizations are tax-exempt, right, and some states don’t have sales tax… whereas typos happen the world over).

A better question might be this: Once the book is published, and someone spots a typo, should anything be done about it? Well, of course mistakes should be fixed when 1) it is possible, and 2) it makes sense. “Sense” usually means—you guessed it—financial sense. Was my publisher going to recall and then reprint 20,000 books because “hoilday” appeared in a caption? Of course not. The error was not worth the expense it would take to correct it. In the case of the cook book that advised adding “freshly ground black people” instead of “black pepper,” the publisher had to reprint 7,000 copies at a cost of US $18,000.

So no, if you spot one instance where Steven has been rendered as Stephen, firing off an indignant letter isn’t going to accomplish anything. If you spot a mistake on every page, then you might consider sending a letter to … well, to whom? Authors, unless they self-publish, don’t have the authority or the means to reprint books. Yet readers can sometimes more easily find an email or blog site or something for an author than an editor; and of course authors can pass information on to their editor.

The only downside to informing an author that his hero Victor on page 54 has been miscast as Victim is that if nothing can be done about the mistake, the author just feels badly. A book is such hard work, and you get so emotionally invested with it, that it’s a bit of a let-down to think your readers are primarily concerned about whether the stationary should have been stationery. Of course we care. Words matter, and spelling conveys their beauty as well as their meaning. But we probably care more about plot, character, setting, and those lustful sex scenes.

It comes down to an individual preference, really. Personally? I want to know. If the mistakes can be fixed, I want to make sure that they do. (If you spot a typo in one of my blog posts, for example, tell me! and I will fix it). If they cannot, and there are a lot of them, I might want to let the publisher know in any case. To me, being informed is worth the feelings of disappointment I would invariably have.

I’ll put the question out to others, then. Authors: Do you want to know? Readers: How affected are you when you catch a typo, and what, if anything, do you usually do about it?

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This entry was posted on Friday, July 2nd, 2010 at 8:30 pm and is filed under • When Correctness Takes a Hoilday. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

7 Responses to “When Correctness Takes a Hoilday”

oatmeal girl Says:

I seem alway to have a red pencil in my mental hand as I read, and I am startled out of whatever space the author has made me inhabit when I come across a typo. The problem is, I am a lot better at seeing other people’s mistakes than my own.

The sadist owns my writing. He expects perfection. I am allowed some leeway when we chat, but that’s it. I take my typos very seriously ever since receiving some intense (for me, no big deal for a masochist) corporal punishment for sending him a piece with a typo.

Certainly, the pain gave his words extra weight. But his explanation made an impact as well. Like I am, he was jolted out of what I had created when he came across the typo. It broke the spell. He said it showed disrespect for my art, and it was as if I had presented him with a marred painting or a cracked vase.

That part really stuck in my mind. Because yes – our words are not just our tools. They are also the fabric, the clay, the paint. So yes – a typo is a crack, a scratch – like a skip in the record. (Remember records?)

Which doesn’t mean that mistakes don’t happen. Accidents. And if there are just a few scattered through an entire book, it’s not that terrible. What gets to me more are signs that the author hasn’t mastered basic grammar. “Irving and me went for a walk down by the river.” “She gave the freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies to my sister and I.” Then I lose respect, for both the writer and the editor.


Shar Says:

Remember records? Girl, I still have records! And a turntable. 😉

I understand completely about seeing more mistakes in others’ writing than your own. I pretty much split my working time between editing and writing. Since I’m an editor, shouldn’t my own work always be error-free and perfectly polished? But no; I can’t edit my own writing. I can’t really say why not, but … it just doesn’t work that way. Of course I can (and do) check it thoroughly, but I still need an outside editor.

I’ve noticed in my non-fiction work (which is still all print books; whereas erotica is often e-books or a mix of both) that manuscripts that used to come to me from the copy editor on pages now come to me electronically. I do still get first pass pages in hard copy (and second pass, and sometimes third pass if there is one), but I wonder how far off the day is when even those come electronically. That worries me a bit, because I absolutely see different things when I edit on screen and when I edit on pages. For smaller bits, I’ll even print things out for myself; but I can’t really do that with every 200-300 page book that comes my way.

I like the attitude that the editor and the author are both in service of the reader. (A book I’m reading now, The Subversive Copy Editor, makes that point with grace and humor.) Cleaning up mistakes is respecting your art, and it’s respecting your reader.

You’ve probably heard about potters in Japan, and I believe quilters as well (everywhere, I mean, not just in Japan), who deliberately craft one small flaw into their pieces, against the arrogant belief that perfection in art is possible. I do see their point; yet I can’t bring myself to introduce one purposeful typo. 😉

Willsin Rowe Says:

Among the most frustrating of errors is the one that stays in AFTER you’ve marked it in the errata sheet the publisher sends you. Because you look at it and say “But I SAW it! I corrected it! I tolja I tolja I tolja! It wasn’t me! It was the one-armed man!”

Erobintica Says:

I always cringe when I see a typo, especially one easily spotted, though the worst are those that are from some “authority” who wants us to take them seriously. Like typos in notices home from school (yes, there is a story behind this one). My husband is an editor by profession, and he is not very tolerant of typos (which is why I love pointing out his own – hehehe).

There was some article of scholarly bent that explained why we can read over a typo and not see it. Our brains fill in or fix it for us. Makes sense.

One thing I do like about electronic publishing is the ability to quickly fix small problems that would have to be kept in print. But I also agree that it’s harder to spot things on the screen than in print.

And when I type, I am constantly fixing my typos. I can’t type and then go back later. If I see that squiggly red line, I can’t continue until I fix it. I even do that when I’m IMing. Which has a squiggly red line under it. But then, made-up or new words are an exception.

I’m blathering on. Interesting subject.

Shar Says:

@Willsin: Surely the very worst typo though is one that you add yourself, at some late stage, in the process of correcting a different one. Not that I’d know anything about that. 😉

@erobintica: There are — naturally! — cognitive linguists who study why the brain can decode misspellings and when it can. For instance, it’s easier to read a word when it’s an internal letter that is wrong and not the letter that starts or ends the word: so, if the correct word is publicity, we can recognize it more easily as pudlisity than as fudlipith. Transposed letters are easier to decode than letters that don’t belong in the word at all: pulbic is more recognizable than puslic. We’re more likely to not notice typos that form correct, if different, words; I know I’ve done the public/pubic switch more than once!

There was some email joke that made the rounds a few years ago with a title like Cna Yuo Raed Htis?, but google is not showing it to me this morning. You get the idea, though–it was a paragraph formed of words that all had some letters transposed, and you were able to read the whole thing anyway. An interesting point, though a little aside, since we are not talking about our readers’ ability to merely decode our stories, but rather the likelihood that they will enjoy reading them.

I’m sure I can (and do) skip over many a typo. But once I know one is there… that becomes all I can think of. I still call that book (in my head) ‘the hoilday book.’ The current carton of Rice Dream (a rice milk beverage) sports an its/it’s mistake, and also once (but not consistently) misspells chili as Chile. Like some sort of orthographic ambulance chaser, I cannot stop looking at that carton! And I blush to say that I did email the company and let them know. I got a response, too, although of the sort that implied I might be better off if I got a life.

But HEA (happily ever after) on the hoilday book! Its day has come. A second edition will be out in 2011; the same art file will be used in that one spot; and because I know the caption error is there, it will soon be conspicuous to me by its absence.

Goldilocks Says:

While not an author myself, I have done enough writing to realize the inevitability of typos making it through to final print. As a result, I try to be accepting when I find them in published works. That said, they do jar me out of the zone of whatever I was reading. I’m sure I skim over many more (public/pubic is, as you point out, an easy one to miss)

Like Erobintica, I hold certain institutions to an even higher standard than others. Once, while working in education, I noticed a flyer posted in our lobby (by my boss no less) with your in place of you’re (or maybe it was the other way around?). I was LIVID. We were offering a very expensive service to teach students to read and write better, and I found it completely unacceptable that we should make such a mistake ourselves. She tried to explain it away with the rush she was in etc, but I don’t think there is any excuse at that level.

All of that to say that while I do notice typos and shake my head a little bit, in most contexts I’m able to recognize that it happens, and not hold it against the publisher or author. Certain exceptions apply.

Jeremy Edwards Says:

Great exploration of the typo tyopic, Shar! (I didn’t catch tyopic just then because I’m myopic.) The post title alone is priceless, especially because at first the reader thinks it’s unintentional, and then—aha! Caught us, you witty author person.

These lines also especially delighted me:

It’s a Thing, and you made it.

You want to say, “Yes, but look how many words are spelled correctly!” though that just comes off as desperate.

Someone once told me there’s a rule of thumb that it takes, on average, seven (I think) passes from seven different proofers before most typos are caught. If I remember correctly, there have even been tests with “parallel” proofers, emphasizing that different proofers—skilled proofers—will catch and miss different errors in identical manuscripts.

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