Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Typo Quean

I hate labels. Too bad we can’t go through life without them, or make up things no one’s ever heard of to describe ourselves. If I could do that, rather than calling myself an “editor,” I’d call myself a “writer’s helper.” You see, I’ve discovered during my life as an “editor” that this label sometimes intimidates authors. They don’t feel comfortable giving their work to an “editor” to review. I think they fear I’ve memorized Fowler’s and The Chicago Manual of Style and am waiting, mouth drooling in anticipation, to pounce on them with my red pen. They seem to expect comments like (and, believe me, I did once know an editor who was like this, so it isn’t as though their fear is completely irrational), “This is garbage,” or “During your schooling, did you ever wake up to take note of what it means to write?” I’m pretty sure some of my authors are afraid to have a single typo or awkward phrase when they send me sample pages to review.

The truth of the matter, though, is that I am myself a queen of typos and awkward sentences. I can write something, obsessively proofread it ten times, pick it up a week later, and discover some glaring and embarrassing typo, or a phrase that sounds like I was channeling Tarzan when I wrote it. I turn to my friends who are editors to help me catch these errors, knowing perfectly well that the problem is I’m too close to it. I know what I meant to say, and my brain reads that, even if it isn’t there. I can completely sympathize with those who make mistakes. I have no problem reading and correcting them. I don’t judge those who make them. And there’s nothing I like better than to help turn around somebody else’s awkward phrase, which is much more fun than trying to turn around one of my own.

I have to admit, though, that at one point in my life, I was headed in that nasty, overly-judgmental direction authors seem to fear. When I was a schoolgirl, I was extremely dismissive of people who misspelled simple words like “its” and “it’s” or “your” and “you’re.” We’d clearly been taught the differences between these words, and the differences were quite easy to remember. I was especially harsh with those who would write in my autograph books “your nice” or “your sweet.” How could I have chosen to let such woefully ignorant people be my friends? And how had they made it this far in life (5th grade, I mean, come on!) without knowing the difference? Did they ever wake up in class to take note of what it meant to write?

Then it happened. I was sixteen or so, and I happened to be spending the night with my best friend. I picked up her high school yearbook from the previous year, flipping through it to see what everyone had written, being mostly interested to see what I’d said. And there it was: a “your” where a “you’re” should have been, in my own handwriting, right out there for everyone (you know, all those hordes of people who would be reading her yearbook) to see how ignorant I was. I, of course, immediately found a pen and corrected my mistake.

That yearbook signing must have been the beginning of my career as the Typo Queen, as I’ve discovered myself making similar mistakes ever since (in fact misspelling homonyms seems to be a pet favorite of mine). Email seems to bring out my most creative efforts in this profession, but I’ve noticed blogging is becoming a fine outlet as well. Sew, the next time you sea a slew of errs in won of my posts, don’t be to surprised.


BikeProf said...

Your so grate! I do really, really love the line about channeling Tarzan--I think that's how I write most of the time. Me Bikeprof, you reader. I am with you on the whole its/it's and your/you're and their/there/they're thing. I go completely ballistic when my students do this. Or at least I tell that I will when they inevitably disappoint me with the wrong your.

Rebecca H. said...

I just handed out a worksheet in my writing class that had two typos -- unintential ones -- on it. So I have to remember not to get too frustrated with my students when they do the same!

Amanda said...

I'm a typo queen two. It is embarrassing because I have actually taught writing (both intro to academic writing and legal writing) at University level and I should know better but what can you do? Life is too short to obsessively proof read every bit of written output I produce

(Though it probably would have been good had I proof read the powerpoint presentation I lectured to today...eep [blushes at the memory of the multiple errors I only noticed standing in front of a class of 100])

Emily Barton said...

Bikeprof and Dorothy, once again, I find confirmation for my suspicion that editing is a lot like grading papes.

And, Ms. Tea, I still cringe when I think of my first big presentation when I joined this company: two glaring errors in my PowerPoint slides. Imagine doing that in front of a bunch of editors!

Anonymous said...

Emily, I love this post but I want the name and address of that monstrous editor you allude to in the first paragraph! Whenever I post something new on my blog I probably go back 5-10 times to correct little errors that I find after the fact. I'm horrified by every one of them but I know it's natural in the rushed nature of blogs (I wonder if the big bloggers have teams of proofreaders examining their prose before it's posted).

I admit that I cringe whenever I see the it's/its mistake (although I've committed that sin) and I tend to even read menus and training manuals with a symbolic red pen in my hand. For a recent post I spent 20 minutes trying to determine the past tense of "lie on the street." Of course it's "lay" but I've said that incorrectly for so many years that it sounded wrong! And then some "mistakes" I choose to make out of grammatical civil disobedience such as ending sentences with a preposition. Sometimes trying too hard to be "correct" is worse than the mistake itself.

Ah, the tortured life of book editors.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I am right there with you. I often make mistakes (esp. in blogging, which is something I rush at occasionally)and it's interesting to me how our minds, when on autopilot, go to the incorrect versions of what we meant to say. why in the world would I write won instead of one? They are entirely different! And yet I often do! Great post!

litlove said...

I am a firm believer in the typo fairy who brings them in the night while you are sleeping. Anne Fadiman's book of essays Ex Libris, has a very funny chapter on just this kind of thing, and I think you'd enjoy Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which is a very witty and clever rant about the gradual decline of punctuation.

Emily Barton said...

Danny -- I'd give you his name, but he's a bigwig, who also has a law background, and I'm sure he's got a team of people scrolling blogs 24 hours a day looking for material to feed his ego and/or to feed his bank account from a big lawsuit.

Courtney -- Freud, of course, would have a heyday.

Litlove -- The typo fairy must be reproducing, sending her progeny all over the world, no?

Froshty said...

My answer is to why all of a sudden I've lost the ability to distinguish between rode and road is to blame my computer screen. My rationale for this is work I used to do with graphic designers back in the days when I worked for a real publisher. I'd see a lovely color on the designer's screen, but when she printed it out at the printer, I was lucky if what was printed was even in the same color family. If it happens with colors, I say it can happen with words. I'm also convinced that there's an autoincorrect function in my word processing programs and email programs that change my words, forcing them to be incorrect.

Also, for those who must edit their own work, a neat trick I use is to read what I've written out loud. I catch all kinds of typos that way.