Writing Craft

When Editorial Errors Matter

Writers make mistakes. It happens. Often an editor’s job is to be the safety net and catch those tidbits that find their way into an early draft of a manuscript for any number of reasons.

  • The simplicity of “cut and paste” has created more opportunity for error than ever before. I’ve seen half sentences left in their original places because the writer failed to cut and paste accurately.
  • Many books evolve over time with additional research or new thoughts. Errors can creep in this way. I’ve seen an author actually contradict himself between chapters.
  • There are too many details to keep straight, so the writer overlooks the inconsequential, trusting the editor to fix things. I remember talking to a Bethany House editor who revealed that an author accidentally brought a character back to life, forgetting that the character had died earlier in the story.

None of the above examples ever found their way into the final edition of the book, and the public never knew the error was made. An editor caught it and fixed it. That is why errors found in a finished and published book are so jarring.

There is much talk about the ease of self-publishing and that traditional publishing is going to die the slow death of the dinosaur. But at the same time, we read of complaints about poor editing in the plethora of self-published books.

Recently, someone showed me a minor mistake in a recently self-published book by a well-known author who was diving into the indie world of publishing in addition to their traditional publishing efforts.

It is a simple error, not an egregious one. Early in the book a character has possession of a piece of jewelry that was apparently purchased at Target. Less than fifty pages later, the same piece of jewelry is described as being purchased from Walmart.

“Who cares? Really, Steve, you shouldn’t be pointing out something so trivial.” That was the conversation in my head. But I bring it up anyway as a reminder to all writers and editors. We make mistakes. (And I would not like it if all my editorial and writing errors were exposed. It hurts enough to have my grammar corrected in the comment section below!) But when we do make mistakes, the reader is pulled out of the story; and the nature of the reading experience has been changed. The reader who found the above inconsistency did not come to me extolling the virtues of the story or its fine packaging or its literary style. Instead, the conversation was about editorial errors and author errors.

The author missed it. The substantive editor missed it. I hope there was a copy editor who missed it. And I hope there was at least one, if not more, proofreaders who missed it. If so? Okay. It happens and we fix the file, so future editions will be corrected; and we move on. Most publishers have a correction file on every book, so when it comes up for reprint the errors can be fixed. In today’s digital world the ebook file can be corrected rapidly and uploaded with relative ease. (It is not “easy” due to all the various outlets and file formats, but it is relatively easy.)

But if this self-published author did not run it past multiple editors with a variety of skill sets (substantive, copyedit, and proofreading), then we may have a problem. And one that is showing up with more frequency as we cut editorial corners, both in the indie community and the traditional publishing houses.

Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Yes, and I apologize for the poke in the ribs. It is done to make a point about the need for excellence in all things. Our readers demand it. They are a relentless group of people who deserve our best. They find typos and are annoyed. They find errors like the example above and make that a topic of conversation. And after a while they stop trusting us to provide them with information and entertainment that exhibits the finest we can produce. Yes, we all make errors; and it isn’t always a big deal. Let’s just make sure we have worked our very best to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

Your Turn:
What errors have you found in a book recently that made you sigh with exasperation?

[A version of this post ran in early 2013, and I’ve left all the comments intact as readers provided a robust conversation. Please chime in to add your thoughts to this discussion! By the way, you’ll note that people found typos in my original post! Because I tend to have too many mistakes in my blog writing, I hire a proofreader to look them over before they post. Now I can blame someone else! HAH!]

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Singing the Slushpile Blues

by Steve Laube

The unsolicited pile of proposals in my office (aka “the slushpile) taunts me every day.

“Come over here!” it says, tantalizing me with immanent possibilities. I say to myself, “Maybe it will be the next one I look at. That will be ‘The One.'”

I’ve been told that many of you enjoy hearing some of the offbeat letters or intriguing proposals I see. Here is a sampling from the past few months [typos included but some info is deleted to protect the writer’s identity]:

“I am seeking representation for my First book: … I have 17 more. This book could very well Save the World.”

“… is a polyphonic composition in which anti-hero…inner conflicts are given voice, subjected to contrapuntal treatment, and developed into an intricate narrative marked by a stunning climax.”

“Maggot … my inspirational Christian Literature fiction book”

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Books Are Signposts Along the Way

By Steve Laube

The novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is a series of stories linked together in the small town of Macondo in South America. It is surrounded by a swamp and thus is known for its isolation.

One day the town was infected by a plague which causes insomnia. The people of the town were not unhappy at first because it meant there was more time to get things done. But there was more to this plague. In addition to insomnia they began to lose their memory. Marquez called it the loss of “the name and notion of things.”

They countered these symptoms by writing names on things or pinning signs to them. You would walk around the town and see the words “clock,” “chair,” “dog,” “wall,” and so on. But they were afraid they would forget the purpose of the items. So they would write longer and more elaborate signs with instructions.

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It’s New to Them

The other day, I was surprised to see an ad for a book published fairly recently regarding Kitty Genovese, a woman murdered as bystanders watched in Queens, New York, in 1964. This case was so notorious for its study of human behavior (Why would witnesses fail to act?) that people …

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Defining a Few Terms

Since Steve dealt with some terms in Monday’s post, we thought it appropriate to discuss some other basic ones today. When a person undertakes to write for publication—and especially when that individual starts taking webinars, attending writers conferences, and hanging out with other writer types—he or she will encounter some …

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The Dreaded Blank Page

by Steve Laube

A clean slate. An empty canvas. A fresh start. A new beginning.
Or a potential nightmare of guilt, failure, and shame.

Thus begins the process of each writing project. This blog post began with a blank page. I wondered why I ever agreed to write a blog. I procrastinated with enough excuses to be described as legion. I told myself that no one cares what I think on any subject.

Once my episode of complaining was done I began to write. Each of my posts begins in a Moleskine notebook written by hand. The pages are littered with half-started ideas and incomplete thoughts. And this was no exception. Today’s post is the fourth one that received some scratches.

The blank page is the universal place where every writer begins. And in that moment and in that place all things are equal.

A place where the artist begins creating verba ex nihilo.*

A place of immeasurable potential and endless possibilities.

A place upon which a treasure map is drawn leading a reader to riches unimagined.

A place where worlds are spun into existence.

A place of creation, inspiration, and wonder.

Remember this as you fill today’s blank page:

The world will be a little different tomorrow because of what you write today.

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To Comma or Not to Comma?

by Steve Laube

I came across this entry in the Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss. The book is a classic on punctuation (although based on British English usage it is still a great book). Read the story below and then answer the questions in the comment section.

On his deathbed in April 1991, Graham Green corrected and signed a typed document which restricts access to his papers at Georgetown University. Or does it? The document, before correction, stated: “I, Graham Greene, grant permission to Norman Sherry, my authorised biographer, excluding any other to quote from my copyright material published or unpublished.” Being a chap who had corrected proofs all his life, Greene automatically aded a comma after “excluding any other” and died the next day without explaining what he meant by it. A great ambiguity was thereby created. Are all other researchers excluded from quoting the material? Or only other biographers?

Which do you think he meant?

What other ambiguities with commas have you seen or written with your own hand?

Why should it matter? It is just punctuation.

Is punctuation important in book contracts?

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Original Writing

Several years ago, I reviewed a proposal on a subject commonly addressed in Christian books and quickly noticed it was not entirely original.  It wasn’t plagiarized from another author, but the proposed nonfiction book was comprised almost entirely of the best-thinking from other Christian authors on the subject. There was …

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