Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Inevitable Error

I write in books. Not borrowed books, not library books, but the ones I pay for; I can’t help it. How can a career editor leave a mistake unmarked--even in a printed book, when it’s too late? If I merely continued reading, it would seem that I was condoning the error or—far worse—hadn’t seen it.
When I was a young Editorial Associate for a textbook publisher, our company president used to say with a smile, “There’s no such thing as a perfect book, but we keep trying.” Perfection is an editor’s reason for being, but something always slips past us, doesn’t it? Back then I had a love-hate relationship with the newly printed books I’d worked on: I loved to see them finally come together, but I dreaded to learn that someone had found a mistake. It’s like that first little door ding on a new car: Ouch!
I’m never 100 percent sure whether errors in a book should be attributed to the author or to an editor later down the line, but my vote goes to the editor. After all, if your eyes are the last to see a manuscript or a set of galleys, you have to take the heat.
I don’t think for a minute that Sue Grafton gets dual and duel confused, but I found this sentence on page 18 of the paperback version of U is for Undertow: “I shut the engine down, locked my car, and crossed the street, passing through the squeaking gate that serves the duel purpose of doorbell and burglar alarm.” Even if an author doesn’t know, the editor should.
Nathan’s Run is a fabulous suspense novel written a few years back by a very talented author named John Gilstrap. After I discovered him, I began reading everything he’d written; but did he know the difference between farther and further? It didn’t seem so as I corrected instance after instance of misuse in my second-hand copy of Nathan’s Run, but I’m not blaming Gilstrap. Someone else either missed those errors or made them.
After 30 years of being that set of editorial eyes, I wrote a book—a book that’s now being EDITED. Gulp.
I’d be lying if said it didn’t give me a thrill to find mistakes in other people’s books. When it comes to grammar, spelling, punctuation, and word usage, I’m picky and unforgiving, superior and smug. I hope my editor is every one of those things. I like to think I don’t miss a thing, but we know better, don’t we?
If we leave out the life-and-death aspect, there’s an editorial equivalent to the fundamental principle of medicine, which is “First, do no harm.” The editorial equivalent is “Don’t introduce errors.”
Just so you’ll know, I don’t like the word woken. Many people do; it appears in virtually every book I read. The website offers no cautions about using woken, defined there as “a past participle of wake.” The word just sounds wrong to me: “After he had woken...” sounds like a mistake. I’ll rewrite to avoid it. I don’t correct it when I see it on the printed page, though—unlike dual vs. duel or farther vs. further, the correction is complicated. I do underline it, though, to say, “I see you.” If you ever read a book of mine and find woken in it, I didn’t put it there.
For all our efforts--my editor’s and mine—there’s still a chance my book won’t be perfect when it’s published. The inevitable error will surface, and it might be my fault. I just hope I’m not the one to find it.
This post is a thank-you to all of the great authors and editors out there, those who champion what’s best about language and are the squeaking gates of our published books.


  1. Jane,
    I found three small errors in my newly published book. I so wanted the book to be perfect that I almost cried! Everyone says, "Don't fret; no one will notice." I tell them, "Oh yes, there are people out there who'll notice." Your blog proves I'm right. Besides, I feel compelled to point them out to everyone who buys the book. How silly of me!

  2. Sorry to keep commenting, but I just remembered something else. You say you don't like the word woken. Neither do I. While we're on the subject of words we don't like, would you comment on the word snuck? My grammarian son swears there is no such word. I don't use it myself, but have heard educated people do so. What do you say on this one?

  3. Hi Peggy,

    I posted a reply to your second comment yesterday, and now it's gone. Here's what I said:

    I say "sneaked." Like woken, snuck seems to be in every book these days, but it sounds wrong to me. I checked, a reference I frequently use, and snuck is given as an alternative for sneaked. I still don't like it.

    Thanks for following my blog--awesome!