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The Great Editing Problem

4

December 5, 2013 by Nathaniel Tower

Let me start by saying that I am guilty of the sin I am about to decry.

My sin was most recently brought to my attention by one of my former students. He found it in the very first chapter of my serial novel, Misty Me and Me.

A typo.

Gasp. The scarlet letter of writers.

Now, before I start pointing fingers and declaring my innocence, I should state the editorial policy of JukePop Serials: chapters may not be edited once they are posted. Once a piece is accepted, it is the author’s sole responsibility to make sure it is free of errors.

Was I embarrassed that a high school senior brought this mistake to light? No, not at all. If anything, it shows my teaching expertise (he must have learned that from me, right?). However, I am embarrassed that the typo exists at all, especially within the first chapter of a serial novel. Do I believe it will prevent people from reading further into the novel? Maybe, but based on most of what I read today, probably not.

The editing problem is much bigger than a typo in an independent author’s serial pink erasernovel. Typos are about as ubiquitous as our mobile devices. It seems like editing mistakes are becoming the norm in the publishing industry today.

I’ve read dozens of books this year, ranging from Big 6 novels to independent releases to self-published work. While I have enjoyed much of what I have read, I have been disturbed and bothered by the massive number of typos and editing mistakes I’ve encountered.

Missing words. Repeated words. Incorrect punctuation. Blatant misspellings. Incorrect word usage. The editorial mistakes run the gamut.

A recent novel I read used “lightening” instead of “lightning.” Yes, “lightening” is a word, but the author was describing the weather phenomenon, not trying to make something brighter or lighter. Will most readers notice the difference? Perhaps not. But isn’t it our job to cater our writing to the best readers? We might as well try to be perfect. Of course, this example is far from the worst of what I’ve seen.

In a recent submission to Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine, an author used “deification” when he meant “defecation.” If we had accepted the story, we certainly would have corrected the error. That seems like a pretty big one, right? Unless of course the reader is a fan of worshiping bowel movements

As I said before, it isn’t just a problem of self-published work released hastily by eager writers. Even titles from the Big 6 carry these errors, which is entirely inexcusable. When I had my first novel published by a small independent publisher, we went through five rounds of editing before publication. It’s a shame that all published work can’t be reviewed so meticulously before it becomes available to the public. Unfortunately, the combination of our laziness and our impatience have made this impossible.

Book publishers aren’t the only guilty party. Online news sources have become despicable because of these egregious mistakes. From Huffington Post to the Wall Street Journal, I have seen every kind of typo in every kind of publication. Yahoo! news stories are often the biggest offender. I almost wonder if anyone bothers to use an editor anymore.

So what’s the big deal? They’re just typos. It’s not like most readers lose the meaning of what’s written when encountering the mistakes.

It’s certainly not that people don’t notice. Many times when I go to write a review on Amazon, at least one existing review talks about the shoddy editing job. In the comments section of any given news article, someone is criticizing the writer for his or her poor grammar. These commenters are then referred to as the grammar police and reprimanded for focusing on something that isn’t the real issue. But are they really wrong to point out the flaws of professional writers?

We as writers need to do a better job. Editors need to do it as well, but with the sheer volume of work produced these days, the burden of mistake seems to fall more on the writer. We must accept this, especially if we expect to get paid for our words. At the very least, we should strive to give the reader the best reading experience possible.

At Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine, we run through several steps for our editorial process. I know we aren’t perfect (I sometimes catch typos several months after the fact). We have multiple editors look over each story. Before final publication, we send a proof copy to the writers to check for mistakes. Unfortunately, some writers are so excited to see their name in print that they don’t bother to edit over the words (and yes, I’ve been guilty of this as well). Ultimately, we need to do a better job.

Of course, maybe it doesn’t matter at all. Language lives and breathes. Maybe we think if we keep making the mistake, it will eventually become the norm. Just look at how “they” has now become officially accepted as a singular pronoun (which means all those hours teaching my students about pronoun agreement were for naught).

Then again, a missing word will never become the accepted form. After all, a missing word might the meaning.

See what I did there?

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4 thoughts on “The Great Editing Problem

  1. Mike Monson says:

    When I was a reporter at the daily paper in Tyler, Texas in 1983, all stories went through at least two copy editors and one proofreader before being published. Still, almost every time I met a citizen in that town and they found out I worked for the Courier-Times — all they wanted to do was complain about the typos and bad editing.

    • Mike, you are probably right that people will always complain. It seems like things are getting a lot worse though. I never used to notice typos in novels. Now they seem to be all over the place.

  2. Paul Lamb says:

    I’m of two minds on this. Back when I was writing technical manuals and negotiating legal contracts, I saw the need for grammatical and spelling standards (and I still do in that context). But for creative writing (fiction and nonfiction) I feel that grammar is merely a tool, not a rule. (Credit for that observation to the writer Emma Darwin.) Most of my narrators tell their stories in a conversational style, and grammar is the first casualty in that context. And I think the telling is better for it. It is more vivid and engaging, and I suspect it’s easier to follow. Plus, folks like us can spot spelling errors, but I suspect most readers don’t or can’t. I just finished reading Benediction by Kent Haruf, and throughout he used “of” in place of “have” in the way many people do. I suspect most readers (okay, many) won’t even spot that “error”, which I’m sure is deliberate to show the “regular” nature of the characters. And soon plenty of people will cite that (though they may “sight” it or “site” it) as evidence that their use of “of” was right all along.

    Typos? Yeah, bad. Evolution of the language. Not so bad. (Also, currently under the influence of percocet, so excuse the incoherency.)

    • Paul, thank you for the very insightful comment. You are absolutely right about the benefit of the intentional “mistakes” that writers can utilize so well, especially in dialogue or conversational-style narrative. This can really add to a character or make the read more fluid for the audience. Well said.

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