Making mistakes

I’m a member of a copyediting listserv, and recently a thread was started on a topic of special interest to me. It’s an icky, dirty, hush-hush topic: mistakes. As editors our job is to identify and fix mistakes. So what happens when, instead of fixing mistakes, you slip up and miss them, or make them yourself? Editor Jan Arzooman started the thread, and she put it this way: “In a job where someone’s looking for perfection, what if you’re less than perfect?” 

The conversation that ensued wasn’t surprising so much as comforting: we’ve all made mistakes, and we’re all embarrassed by them. There seemed to be two general responses when someone called us out: (1) justifying the error by citing a style guide or general rule that would make the error defensible; or (2) saying, “Glad you caught that!” I would add a third response, one that is uncomfortable to admit but very real: when documents have substantive problems, it’s easier to miss technical errors because you’re focusing on complicated issues of clarity, tone, and flow. We do our best—and our best is very, very good—but we can’t promise perfection.

When I worked doing in-house communications, an email or document would occasionally get passed around for comments. Sometimes I would notice a technical error (a dropped quotation mark, a misplaced word) but I wouldn’t say anything, focusing instead of content and style. The minor error was like a fleck of food on someone’s cheek: eventually he’d look in the mirror, right? For authors, copyeditors are the mirror, but we’ve got blind spots, too.

The last time I made an embarrassing error (that I know about), the author tactfully pointed it out to me in an email. I went back and checked my work, and she was right—I’d missed something important and seemingly obvious. Luckily she’d caught the error before submitting the piece, but she still wanted to bring it to my attention, and I’m glad she did. I apologized, promised to quadruple-check the second document I was then editing for her, and gave her a discount.

I’ve learned from the error (a misspelled name of a foreign institution) and I now make sure to give special attention to similar terms that I encounter. I wish I could say I’ll never ever ever make the same mistake again, but I can’t. As another editor, Merryl Sloane, wrote, “If authors didn’t make mistakes, then I wouldn’t have a job. If I didn’t miss some things, then proofreaders wouldn’t have a job. The authors do their part, I do my part, and the other publishing professionals do theirs, and between us we make a miracle—a book!”

Leave Reply