Those of us who read are an exacting bunch. Many grew up reading professionally proofread books, back when publishers could still afford to pay someone whose sole purpose was to make sure no spelling mistake got by, no errant comma, no sneaky typo, sloppy grammar or lazy punctuation. Good proofing trained us to have high expectations of our reading material. Now we tend to notice when something on a page is wrong; it’s almost jarring. It trips us up. It irritates the dickens out of us. “How in heaven’s name,” we exclaim, with a sense of superiority, “did they miss that one!”
Try going to work for a weekly newspaper. It will humble you in a hurry. As painstakingly as you collect, sort and disseminate all the information that goes through your hands, there will be errors; minor ones, glaring ones, and everything in between. There will be names misspelled, in spite of all your best efforts; lo, there will be wrong names altogether! There will be numbers changed, dropped, miscounted, mixed up. You will look right at something twice and still not see that it’s not what it should be. You will have trouble understanding something written unclearly, scratch your head, sort it as best you can, and still manage to mess it up. When, after the newspaper is printed, you flip through it three times for the pure pleasure of seeing the result of your labour (though you have perused most pages numerous times already), you will surely find one godforsaken glitch that will make you grind your teeth in embarrassment. “How in the Sam Hill did I miss that one!”
You’ll cringe at the injustice of it all. You worked so diligently at this and still it’s not perfect? Hm. Clearly you aren’t as sharp as you thought. It is, as the saying goes, a hard pill to swallow.
Perhaps, you’ll tell yourself (small comfort that it is), most of the readers won’t notice. Most will, though; they are readers. That’s why they’re here. Although any discerning reader has noted many printed errors in his reading travels and may or may not be understanding — after all, it must be obvious (you hope) that for every mistake that gets into the paper, you have corrected 100 missteps before they ever reached the public eye, and factchecked many details — some blunders have to be corrected and apologized for, right out loud. Any reader who missed the error the first time round will be guided to take note of your failing, along with those who stumbled over it and those who grumbled at it. There’s no wangling out: you screwed up. There’s no point in pretending you didn’t, or hoping it was someone else’s fault. You’ve got to straighten your spine and carry on.
Mostly you wonder how this could happen, considering how careful you were. Eventually you come to accept that it just does; there seems to be no getting around it when you are handling thousands of words a week and dozens of photographs, and it all has to be done yesterday. There’s a long list of things to do and a deadline to meet. You don’t have a spare moment to dwell on the past or wallow in regret; it’s already time to get busy putting the next issue together. You do the proverbial pick-yourself-up, dust-yourself-off, start-all-over-again thing and vow to do better. You’ll pay closer attention! You’ll double-check twice instead of once!
These days, when a stupid mistake jumps out at you from the pages of the novel you’re reading, or the shamefully muddled headline on the front page of a daily makes you shake your head, you leap right down off your snooty horse, sadly aware that “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” You’re slightly less quick to judge, to gloat, to delight in the evidence of someone else’s imperfection. (Only slightly; old habits don’t dissolve so easily.) You know that you, yourself, are going to get another turn on the merry-go-round of editors’ nightmares. There’s no getting off it.
By K. Johnson