Monday Musings: How many typos are acceptable?

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How important is the quality of editing to a reader?

My first job following university was as a “production editor,” basically a copy editor, for textbook publisher Prentice-Hall. On my first day, my new boss, Richard Hemingway—I’m not kidding—was showing me the ropes, explaining the steps I was expected to follow in quality control of books.

At some point during my orientation, I said something like “So I guess our goal is to produce the perfect book.”

Hemingway laughed. “I don’t think there has ever been such a thing as a perfect book.”

The value of errors

These many years later, I have to agree with him. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that did not have at least a couple of errors. Usually these are minor typos, the misplacement of an apostrophe or omission of a comma. And yes, even in professionally edited books from commercial publishers.

Ironically, many people collect first editions of old books, which they can identify by the errors that the publishers correct in subsequent editions.

I think there are more errors today in commercially published books than there were 30 years ago. I can’t say for sure, but I have this feeling.

One of the criticisms of independently of self-published books is that they do not meet professional standards for editorial quality. That is, there are too many mistakes—not just typos, but grammatical, punctuation and spelling errors. Continuity and logic mistakes. Low quality covers, and so on.

I have read a number of independently or self-published books that indeed were rife with errors that a professional editor should have caught.

But I have also read many excellent books from independent authors who published their own books. Great stories, believable characters, original writing, beautiful covers.

And I have read some books from major commercial publishers that also have a number of simple mistakes. And books that are just plain terrible, filled with bad writing, illogical plots, one-dimensional characters and clichés.

The commercial publishers have no monopoly on quality.

What is the problem with typos?

As a writer and an editor, the first rule I follow in publishing is this: you cannot effectively proofread your own writing.

It’s so easy to make mistakes. Your fingers hit the wrong key, or Auto-correct gives you “ethylene” when you wanted to type “Ethel.”

And no matter how many people read a manuscript before it’s published, somehow there are mistakes that slip through to the published edition, and then a reader will point it out.

Look through any commercially published book you like: how many have zero typos? But did they detract from your enjoyment of the story?

That’s the point: it’s the story that readers want: believable, relatable characters, an engaging plot, evocative description that brings you into the story.

Errors can give the reader the wrong idea—for example, when the author decides to change a character’s name midway through writing the book, but misses the change at a key point in the story. Or when Auto-correct gives you “turnip” instead of “tourniquet.”

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At some point, a large number of minor errors becomes frustrating. It shows that the author did not care enough about the reader’s experience to follow the process necessary to produce a good book: have it edited by a professional editor, proofread by a professional proofreader. Submit it to beta readers and reviewers, and make the effort to correct the errors.

And have a professional cover.

It costs money and it takes time, but as all our parents and grandparents told us, there are no short cuts when it comes to doing something well.

Where is the dividing line?

But where is that point? Nothing is perfect, not even books.

How many errors can you tolerate before a book frustrates you? How many typos can you tolerate? What is the writing mistake that will turn you off a book?

What’s the worst mistake you ever found in a book?

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Monday Musings: How a Book Springs to Life

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Ask a beginning novelist how she writes a book and you’ll get an explanation about process. She’ll tell you about the sequentially numbered index cards denoting scenes and chapters, and the way she strings them together. Perhaps she’ll regale you with the latest tricks she learned at a writer’s conference, something about goal, motivation and conflict, or how use of the hero’s journey makes the step-by-step creation of her book all the more easy.

Or instead, she may give a careless shrug then explain about her daily dash to Starbucks and the leather chair she always chooses because it overlooks the bay. The breaking whitecaps on the sea swept beach mingle with the scents of the coffeehouse to provide a catalyst sure to send her fingers flying across her iPad.

Process, all of it.

What our fresh-faced scribe doesn’t know yet is that each novel is as different as each child in the brood you might raise. Some works are built from the architecture of a hundred visits to the library for research and a dozen interviews conducted with painstaking precision. Other stories strike in a thunderbolt of inspiration that carry the writer from one chapter to the next without a clear understanding of how it will all pan out.

I can’t tell you how many novels I’ve written. I wrote my first in college and, like most of those early attempts, it sits dusty and unloved in the corner of a forgotten closet. The novels I now publish gain sinew and muscle from those years of practice, yet each arrives in its own unique way. Treasure Me is the book I think of as the thunderbolt.

In 2007, I had just come through the twin tragedies of divorce and my mother’s death after her long battle with cancer. One night I thought, “If I don’t write something to make myself laugh, I’ll never stop crying.” The next morning Birdie appeared, dangling from a window, trying to escape from the man whose pocket she’d picked. That first scene in Treasure Me wasn’t plotted out. It rose from my subconscious in a mad flurry of typing.

As the book progressed, I enjoyed the challenge of making Birdie sympathetic to readers. Why should any of us care about a thief? By mid-story, it becomes clear why she’s led her chosen life, and why she wants to change. I’m an adoptive mother of four children, and some of Birdie’s characterization undoubtedly arises from the experience. Whether you’re talking about my kids or a character like Birdie, the facts are clear: children who have suffered abuse and neglect do not always reach adulthood as model citizens. It takes time to heal their wounds and get them to trust in a mother’s forever-love—something Birdie experiences when she meets Liberty’s town matriarch, the fiery Theodora.

Here’s a secret, or two: When I penned Treasure Me, I had no idea I’d end up living in Charleston, South Carolina. And Birdie’s ancestors, the Postells, are also drawn from fact: my French ancestors arrived in Charleston in 1681. Folks here may think of me as just another Northerner invading their beautiful city, but I’m probably related to half the Postells in the proud state of South Carolina.

 

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