Typogorphical Errors

Over the years, I’ve joked that I need a t-shirt that reads, “I hate typogorphical errors!” The typo, as it is usually called, is the bane of writers. editors, and publishers everywhere, a stealthy creature that slinks into even the most carefully-checked works, causing pain, frustration, and mild terror. Consider the following egregious example I recently tripped over:

This excellent agreement convinced many scientists that the meteoroid dinosaur extinction theory first put forward by Alvarez and collaborators was correct. The ejecta fell exactly on the paleontological boundary, confirming that the impact occurred at the

However, the initial dating of both the crater and the iridium layer . . .

(Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, by Lisa Randall, p216)

And this in a work published by HarperCollins! I’m sure there were a few slapped foreheads when it was discovered. I had to show it to my wife, just so she wouldn’t feel so bad about the typos that have showed up in the books she’s edited.

The term “typographical error” originally referred to typesetting errors at the print shop, not errors that occurred in the writing or editing process. Most often, typos involved transposed letters or simply wrong letters. Later, with the advent of the typewriter, the term expanded to include miskeyed letters. (One that I’m constantly committing these days is the reversal of “i” and “o” in words ending in “ion.” Like statoin . . . err . . . station. I never used to do that. I don’t know why my fingers have picked up that particular quirk.)

In more recent times, with the computerization of just about everything in publishing, a typo can be letters miskeyed during writing or editing, errors that occur as a result of accepting changes entered by either the writer or the editor, or errors that occur during electronic typesetting and layout. The example shown above, in which the entire tail end of a sentence went AWOL, is most likely one of the latter.

Many people, myself included, have a sense that typos are becoming more common in published works. Indeed, it’s probably safe to say that those typos that mangle or eat entire sentences are a fairly modern invention. Although such things may have happened in the days of manual typesetting, they probably were rare. Today, not so much. So why does it happen now? The usual explanation is laziness. Writers and editors used to be a lot more careful and care a lot more about their product.

But I’m not so sure that’s true. The upswing in self-publishing certainly has resulted in a flood of unedited or under-edited works on the market, but that doesn’t explain missing sentences in works written by established authors and published by major publishing houses. Having sat in the publisher’s chair, having worked closely with my editor-wife both as a publisher and as a writer, I’ve gained some perspective on the matter.  It seems to me there are three issues:

  1. Complexity. Publishing today involves computers from end to end. The author writes on a computer. The editor edits on a computer. Electronic document revisions are shuffled back and forth between author and editor. The edited manuscript is imported into publishing software, where typography and layout are handled not by the printer but by the publisher. The manuscript may be broken into a set of files by chapter, and those files collected into an ordered sequence. From this, proofs are generated (typically in PDF format) and sent to the printer. The printer may fiddle with the PDFs in some cases, but in a twist of historical and linguistic irony, printers don’t normally introduce typos today. The typos are already there by the time they get their hands on the production proofs. Ideally, at each step of the way the output is being inspected by the writer and the editor, but enter the next problem.
  2. Overburdened human resources. Workers are under pressure to do more work faster than ever. Reviewing  an entire book in detail is time consuming and not a bit mind numbing, especially given that both author and editor have likely read the book several times each by the time production proofs are ready. Even authors get sick of their own books at that point! Moving quickly because they have to, numbed by repetition, and using processes prone to introducing new typos even as they fix old ones, maybe they spot all the errors and maybe they don’t. It’s not laziness, nor is it sloppiness per se. It’s just not easy, under these conditions, to eradicate every last error.
  3. Typos are stealthy. I don’t know how else to put it. We’ve had the experience of training three sets of eyeballs on a proof, only to miss a few typos. You’d think that at least one out of three reviewers would spot any given error. But no. They sneak through anyway. How do they do that?

We all–writers, editors, publishers–hate typogorphical, er, typographical errors. Most of us, I’m sure, do our best to keep them at bay. Alas, it’s a constant battle, made no easier by the modern tools of the trade and the demands of the business.  And when they happen, we have little option but to sigh, cringe, wince, or maybe just laugh . . . and fix them in the next edition.

Without, we hope, introducing new ones!

 Header image courtesy http://ffffound.com.

Say What?

Dialogue is a central part of nearly every piece of fiction. Although it’s possible to write a story that has no dialogue–I can think of at least one that I wrote ages ago and another that had only one line of dialogue–that’s the exception rather than the rule. The ability to handle dialogue is therefore a key skill for every fiction writer.

You’d think it would be easy. After all, most of us spend a fair bit of time talking. Humans are a noisy species. How hard could it be to translate everyday talk into story dialogue? But it can be tricky. Dialogue is not conversation. Dialogue is conversation that has been cleaned up and sharpened to a particular purpose.

Read that again: dialogue is not conversation. You will find some writers who say that it is, but even they understand the difference, if you read what they have to say on the subject. If you recorded a conversation, you’d find something like this:

“Have you decided who you’re voting for yet?”
“Hey, these cookies are really good, did you make them?”
“No, I bought them at the store last week. They were, you know, on sale.”
(cough) “Yeah, well, Smith is an idiot and Jones can’t be trusted. I was , umm, talking last week . . .”
“I thought Smith made a lot of sense, I mean, about the budget. His budget. You know.”
“Um, but, I think he’s an idiot. His police ideas, plan, whatever. Did you hear that? God! I’m going to have another of these. These are great.”
“No, I didn’t, but I liked what he was saying about, oh, here, take the whole bag. You know?”
“I just think he’s a, well, idiot. Moron. Whatever.”

This may be conversation but it’s not good dialogue. To turn it into good dialogue, we’d have to eliminate the repetition and the umms and the you knows and anything else that is polluting the stream of words. While the aim is to make the dialogue sound like real conversation, in fact the impression given to the reader is partly illusion. Art often works this way: one conveys the impression of reality, but in a more orderly and structured way than reality presents itself.

Dialogue plays several roles in a story. Principally, it helps define characters and it serves the plot. No dialogue that fails to do one or the other should survive the editing process. If it doesn’t serve the story, it doesn’t belong. In the above, the cookie content may be deadwood, although it could perhaps serve character development if incorporated carefully.

At the same time, dialogue is not usually the right place to deliver background to the reader. A common mistake of aspiring writers is to put exposition into their character’s mouths. This doesn’t work because usually characters end up explaining to each other things that all of them already know. And that’s generally unrealistic. If John already knows that Mary earned her Ph.D. last year, she probably wouldn’t tell him that she did.

The words spoken by the characters should convey their personalities and backgrounds, meaning that different characters should sound different. Dialect and different modes of speech help to define and distinguish characters. Some characters may be more prone to using sentence fragments, others may be very proper in their speech. Different slang terms can indicate the eras in which different characters grew up. Even what people say (as opposed to how they say it) can be important. For example, some characters may be very straightforward, while others may be evasive.

Far from being easy, dialogue is an art that takes some practice to develop. The good news is, it does get easier with practice.

 Speech bubble image courtesy of ClipArts.co.

Short and Snappy

Years ago, I ran across an interesting writing exercise.  It goes something like this:

1. Write a paragraph describing an object.

2. Rewrite the paragraph, but use only half as many words.

3. Rewrite the rewrite, again using only half as many words.

This could be repeated several times.  Let’s give it a try.  Here’s a short paragraph I wrote describing a tree in my yard:

In my front yard stands a tall Norway spruce, with branches that swoop gracefully down and then turn up again toward the sun.  The dark green foliage seems to drip off of the branches, hanging down in long tendrils.  Taller than the house, its scaly trunk is about three feet in diameter, and twenty feet up it splits into three trunks.  A few years ago, the upper part of one of those trunks snapped off under heavy snow.  The bark is coated with white trails where sap has run down from holes drilled into the wood by the yellow-bellied sapsuckers that stop to feed while passing through late each winter.

My word processor puts that paragraph at 110 words.  Half of that would be 55, so let’s see if we can get there:

Towering over the house, the Norway spruce in my front yard drips dark green foliage from branches that swoop down and then rise sunward again.  Three feet across at its base, the trunk forks into three great spires pointing heavenward, one broken off, silent testimony to a past snowstorm.  Yellow-bellied sapsuckers on their annual migration drill holes into the tree late each winter, leaving white trails of dried sap on the rough bark.

Nope, that’s 73 words.  Back to editing:

Towering over my house, the Norway spruce drips dark green foliage along swooping branches whose tips turn sunward.  High above, the yard-thick trunk forks three spires pointing heavenward, one shattered, testifying to a past snowstorm.  Migrating yellow-bellied sapsuckers pierce the tree late each winter, spilling sap that dries in white trails on the rough bark.

That’s better: 55 words exactly.  Let’s stop there for a moment.  Compare the last version with the first.  What changed aside from the word count?  Not the information content: the tree’s height and girth, its form and color, the broken trunk, and its interaction with the birds are all present in both cases.  Rather, I changed how I conveyed the information.  The shorter version is necessarily more active.  Instead of standing in the yard, taller than the house, the tree towers over the house.  The birds don’t leave trails of dried sap; they spill the sap which dries.  And so forth.  I’ve also had to find stronger words—shattered instead of merely broken off—to describe the scene.

The general rule, then, is this: Shortening a passage without losing content makes it more active.  Not coincidentally, which version would you rather read?

Is it possible to cut this down by half again, to 27 or 28 words?  In this case, not without losing information.  Even so, it may be worth the effort, if only as an exercise, because that requires choosing which details are the most important.  For example, if the birds were the important thing:

Late in winter, migrating yellow-bellied sap suckers pierce the Norway spruce towering over my house, spilling sap down the rough bark to dry in white trails.

Or if the broken trunk were more important:

Towering over my house, the Norway spruce drips dark green foliage while, high above, its thick trunk forks three great spires, one shattered in a past snowstorm.

Less is not always more, but editing often requires shortening and removing in order to strengthen a passage and present the right details.  Give it a try.  You may be surprised by the results!

The offiical website of author Dale E. Lehman