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Sloppy spelling and other preventable errors: More benefits of digital technology.

July 19, 2011

I hope it doesn’t undermine Virginia Heffernan’s fascinating column, “The Price of Typos,” if I point out that the New York Times digital and pop culture writer doesn’t seem to appreciate the difference between a “typo” and a “misspelling.”

Catch Esmeralda Santiago at Books & Books bookstore tonight at 8 p.m., 265 Aragon Ave. Coral Gables, for a reading sponsored jointly by the Florida Center for the Literary Arts. Free.

A misspelling most often occurs when the writer does not know the correct way to spell a word, as when, to cite Heffernan’s first example, Fitzgerald wrote “definate” when he meant “definite.”

A typo occurs when a writer misspells a word he or she actually knows how to spell by striking the wrong keys on the word processor. This can be the result of haste, inattention (the mind carried along on the rapture of composition), or odd quirks of the mind.

For example, I frequently mistype words I know how to spell, and it’s not always a matter of being in a hurry because I make the same error consistently. I’ve typed the author of The Lord of the Rings as “Tolkein” for 30 years, later having to correct it to “Tolkien.”

That is, if I see the error. Writers are further hampered in correcting their own copy by what I think of as “writer’s blindness” — that is, the tendency to see what I meant to write rather than what I actually put down.

This is an artifact of the human mind’s amazing pattern recognition ability, the same knack that allows us to make sense of a choatic and fragmented reality, allows the brain to create sight out of an astonishingly small amount of visual input, to solve puzzles, crack codes and to easily rd sntcs wth mst of the vwls lft out, and to figure out the correct answer when your wife asks if this dress makes her look fat.

That’s why a good editorial team comprised of an editor, a content editor, a copy editor and a proofreader is a writer’s best friend. I know, I know, editors can sometimes edit in mistakes — nobody’s perfect– but it’s been a long time since I told the hoary joke about every editor needing a pimp for a brother so he has someone to look up to.

Despite getting off on the wrong foot — her use of “typo” and “misspelling” as synonyms weakens her opening gambit–Heffernan’s essay, which you can find here, excels in explaining how that team, seemingly so essential, has become a vestigial luxury in the digital age. “Rushing to publish and overlooking glaring typos may have become part of the new economics of traditional publishing,” she writes, using book publishing as her primary example.

But the same thing has happened in newspapers, where traditional quality control has dwindled with each new development in automation.

First to go were the proofreaders — the Sun-Sentinel used to have an entire room of them,  laboring over news and advertising cop  in the bowels of the building like trained and disciplined monks. They were turned out sometime in the late 1980s or very early 1990s

Next to go were the content editors. By the late 1990s, the features desk had only one “word editor” remaining. All the rest — excellent and dedicated journalists — were expected to be designers first and foremost, editing copy on the side.

Now, with the triumph of digital technology combined with the harsh realities of diminishing ad sales, stories are rushed online and into the paper with little more than the equivalent of a hasty editorial “Our Father.” No, wait: The Our Father would take too long.

Online it’s even worse, of course. No blogger can afford to hire even the part-time services of a copy editor or proofreader. That includes me. My copy goes online every day with errors, despite the care I take in writing and my charmingly ineffectual attempts at proofing my own copy.

Fortunately, I have a few friendly readers who point out my errors, as when I recently labeled the American Booksellers Association the “ALA” on second reference. I mean, it was in the same paragraph. I could see — if I could see — that it was “ABA,” not “ALA.” Of course, I was conflating the American Booksellers Association with another group I sometimes write about, the American Library Association. Thanks to my former Sun-Sentinel colleague Jim Davis for pointing out the mistake.

I hope you’ll forgive me if I fall into a nostalgic reverie about the days when I worked with Robin Berkowitz, the best content and idea editor I ever knew (John Dolen is a close second, but his administrative duties didn’t allow him much hands-on editing). And Oline Cogdill, the best copy editor and designer I ever knew.

After my copy went through their hands it then went into the paper much, much improved from what I originally wrote. Journalism as a handmade product crafted by a team of dedicated master craftsmen — that’s the cost of avoiding typos that no one wants to pay any more.

Wait — explain to me again how digital technology is such an improvement?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 19, 2011 1:59 pm

    Case in point: “choatic” 🙂

    This is a painful state of affairs – not only that it should exist, but that the powers that be should imagine it’s okay to exist. Quality has ceased to be relevant. I’ve all but stopped reading local newspapers for that very reason – always end up feeling disgruntled and disrespected by the plethora of typos AND misspellings, not to mention the rest. Same with local radio; gone are the days when those entrusted with broadcasting their voices had to have some degree of competence in the language.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 19, 2011 2:50 pm

      That’s what I’m talking about! Obviously I know how to spell such a mundane word as “chaotic,” but I mistyped it, and then three read-throughs failed to catch it, because I saw what was supposed to be there.

      Everything you say elicits a twinge of sympathy, Liane, and it’s only going to get worse. The rising tide of typos and misspellings that have gradually swamped newspapers in the past 25 or so years will now spread to magazines and books.

      We’re witnessing the death of literary culture and the birth of something new — let’s call it digital culture. Some say it’s like the advent of the printing press, but to me it seems more profound than that. I think it’s on a part with the discovery of fire, the development of agriculture, or the invention of the wheel.

      And it may not be all bad. Future generations may look back on those like you and me, who resist the flow of history, as Luddites and malcontents. I don’t care, though, do you?

  2. July 19, 2011 2:50 pm

    Re newspapers: not only has there been a steady erosion of copy editing staff, some papers now outsource their editing to mother ships (ie Chicago Tribune) and in extreme cases, to other galaxies (India). How the hell is an editor sitting up in Tribune Tower going to know the difference between Lauderdale Lakes and Lauderdale Isles? Or in one example I saw in a local rag recently (which shall remain nameless since I have friends working there, or at least I think they still work there since I haven’t checked today) — someone inserted “Palm Springs” in a story that took place in Palm Beach.


    Don’t even get me started on the sad state of book editing. And I’m not even talking about the self-published ones. (Although I had a stellar copy editor for my last one, I must say).

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 19, 2011 2:58 pm

      Yep, PJ, we’re going to hell in a handbasket. Or we would if anyone could still afford a handbasket.

  3. July 20, 2011 8:21 pm

    Writer’s blindness! Finally an explanation for why I can’t edit out some of the mistakes I make no matter how many times I go through whatever I’ve written. Maddening. And yet, I can generally spot typos, etc in anyone else’s work.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 21, 2011 11:12 am

      Yep, that’s why a good editor is a writer’s best friend — a hard truth, I know, on a par with admitting that your father knew anything about anything. At least before you reach the age of 30. It also explains the chief value of writers workshops and more informal circles, like the Inklings group at Oxford in the ’30s and ’40s, which included such luminaries as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

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