Error-free copy: Too much to ask? A writer’s lament from Typo Hell

Phooey! Why didn’t I catch that egregious error until it was in print? As my eyes run over the page that I cannot change, the headlines, sentences and paragraphs that I have given up to the Print Publishing Gods knowing that I gave my best, the mistake jumps out at me, glaring, blatant, taunting “Wahahaha, stupid editor, now who’s smarter than a fifth-grader?”

Such gaffes are particularly humbling when one is a martinet concerning the grammatical conduct of others. Those I have trained in reporting, writing and editing know the spiel: “Check your spelling. Verify your facts. Don’t trust the spell-check program. Make sure more than one set of eyes reads your copy. You don’t want to look like an idiot when the piece comes out in print.”

And yet, it happens. Especially on daily deadline.

I recently compiled a chronological listing of my freelance writing and editing credits. Funny, there were a lot of articles written for publications that had slipped my mind. But I can painfully recollect every Jay Leno-worthy boo-boo that slipped by during the daily publishing cycle at the Gazette.

From an editorial: “We must vote with out brains.”

From a headline above a photo caption of a fierce female competitor at an Aikido tournament: “Marital Arts.”

From a special health-care supplement title: “Calumet Pubic Hospital.”

In my defense, the latter was an advertising and production oversight. I remembered seeing it on the boards (this was back in the cut-and-paste days) and remarking on the excellent accompanying photo of a doctor giving a little girl a lollipop. The “Pubic” escaped my attention.

Advertising was also responsible for the block ad promoting a benefit for an “amused” women’s shelter, only slightly less embarrassing than the classified ad copy reading “Join the Army: On the jon training.”

Around the same time, a sister paper on the south end of the peninsula had a lot of explaining to do after it ran a quarter-page furniture store promotion featuring a sale on “Grandfather Cocks.” One particularly witty reader wrote a letter to editor describing herself as a very active, attractive single grandmother who would appreciate additional information about the merchandise.

Years later, I laugh. But at the time it wasn’t funny.

Errors of fact are never humorous. I’ve learned in my travel and tourism writing to never promote visiting a particular attraction unless I’ve been there. Assured by a tourism council spokeswoman that the “drive out to Point Abbaye” on Lake Superior is a spectacular cruise, I included it in a Baraga County tourism round-up. The couple who broke an axle and busted out the windows in their motor home trying to negotiate the rutted two-track road was less than thrilled with my recommendation.

Like the Gazette editors of yore, I never did manage to put out a perfect paper. I came close and I never stopped trying. When I embarked on a freelance writing and editing career I was determined to produce high-quality error-free copy. With a longer lead time and less to worry about in terms of scope and quantity, the quest for perfection has been quite satisfactory.

Turning in perfect copy has become much easier thanks to electronic transmission. In the olden days the typed submission mailed in had to be retyped into the publication’s system, a stellar opportunity for typos to sneak in. It reminds me of my editorial assistant Louise at the Gazette, whom I met after a radio station paired us up in a fur debate.

I’d written an opinion column questioning the boundaries of the anti-fur movement. If the fur in question was vintage fur and the damage, so to speak, had already been done, what was wrong with donning Grandma’s ermine coat on a cold winter day? Louise had a pet fox, along with some strong feelings about humans wearing animal skins. When she came to work for me, we quickly found her Achilles Heel at the keyboard. All of our press releases and public announcements were at that time manually keyed in. Louise could not for the life of her spell “refigerate.” When it came time for the holiday cookbook or the weekly recipe page in the lifestyles section, I could count on the absence of dozens of necessary Rs. The search-and-replace command became an essential tool. It was one of the first computer commands I was forced to learn. And I’ve been learning ever since.

There are those of my generation who proudly and defiantly remain unconnected to social networks and all the intricacies of electronic communication. “I don’t text,” they say. I do, because my children do, as well as many friends and colleagues. My first text was a joint effort on my husband’s cell phone to our daughter, he holding a magnifying glass up to the tiny little keyboard: “RU OK?”

Even now I wince at the character-saving bastardization of proper spelling, a stranger in the strange land of new-age communication where stating “click on this” is considered as naïve as advertising writing and editing services on Craigslist. It helps to remember that I am in essence learning a new language, catapulted willy-nilly up a steep and rocky learning curve in order to continue to do what I love. “Text style” is becoming as familiar to me as AP style. Each has its place as wondrous new forms of communication emerge.

To those willing to teach an old dog new tricks I extend my deepest gratitude and in turn offer my classic knowledge in vital things such as how to write a formal business letter and why it is important to use a dictionary.

Here are a few word-tangles encountered in my most recent copy-editing adventures with young clients who can text circles around me:

  • Canon – cannon
  • Retch – wretch
  • Defiant – definite
  • Whaling – wailing
  • Berth – birth
  • Waist – waste
  • Vane – vain
  • Oar – ore
  • Fare – fair
  • Reign – rein – rain
  • Hurdle – hurtle
  • Strait – straight

And that, my friends, is why you can’t trust an automated spell-checker. By all means, run it, but don’t let it be the final word.

Although I prefer my hardbound dictionaries for mostly sentimental reasons, I note that the internet handily serves this purpose, as well as providing quick-hits on proper names, vernacular terms and colloquialisms. Just this week I Googled “Pedia-Pop,” “DuPont Corian countertops,” “Jimmy Buffett” and “lupus.” If you’re bound and determined to spell “Froot Loops” properly, the task has never been faster or easier.

No matter how you look it up, look it up. Don’t guess. Know. You took the time to write the thing, so apparently it has value to you. Don’t cheapen your work with lazy assumptions that you probably got it right or that no one will care. Editors and publishers care. So do readers. Every typo, misspelling or misplaced apostrophe is a bump in the road that rudely interrupts the flow of communication and suggests to the reader that the writer is a dumb bunny without an iota of credibility. All forms of writing are best served with diligent care paid to punctuation, grammar and correct meaning.

In other words, know the rules b4 u break them (lol). Smile

Resources at a click:

The Grumpy Grammarian passed away in 2011, but his curmudgeonly observations and edicts are frozen in time at http://www.grammarmudge.cityslide.com

Writer’s Digest consistently features helpful material on its website, including a recent article detailing “The13 trickiest grammar hang-ups,” http://www.writersdigest.com

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