Every typo isn’t created equal. Anyone who has worked in the journalism field learns that lesson from an angry email fairly quickly.
Someone recently asked me what frustrates me most about my real job. I thought for a moment, considering all of the possible options. But the answer I gave was finding I’d made a typo.
You might think someone who has derived income — in one manner or another — from writing would reach a point where typos just didn’t happen. You would be absolutely wrong in that belief.
Everyone makes typos. They’re a fact of life. Most of us who write professionally do our best to catch all of them. But let me give you a spoiler alert: we fail. Copyediting your own work is always a challenge. Our eyes trick us by subtly correcting typos as we scan across text. Sometimes we see them without even actually seeing them as typos.
But even worse, when we try to copyedit our own work, we can easily miss a misspelling or other grammatical faux pas. We know what we meant. Our eyes seem even more willing to scan past a typo and “auto-correct” for our brain.
An editor complains about typo complaints
Chris Quinn, the editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, recently asked what it is about typos that enrage readers. It’s a question every editor of every print or online publication has asked. We ask that question particularly when we’re on the receiving end of a tirade. We even ask that question when we encounter a snarky comment on social media pointing one out.
We live in a world with wars, poverty, terminal cancers, rampant gun violence, politicians who prefer sound bites to serving their constituents and other social ills that rip apart the fabric of society, but what gets some people seeing red is a typo.
I know this because they aim their rage at me. They send me their fury in emails and text messages, sometimes saying I should be fired as a result of them. The notes are some of the meanest I receive.
If there’s one thing I’m thankful for, it’s that I don’t work for people who would fire someone over a typo. Then again, anyone who’d fire someone over a run-of-the-mill typo would quickly exhaust the workforce and then manage to never keep an employee for more than a week…if that long.
Quinn points out that the newspaper business model has changed and the “army of copyeditors” they once had are gone. Television newsrooms don’t have copyeditors. The closest we have are executive producers and web managers. Those of us in those roles really do try to catch everything. But the volume of words we put out on a daily basis make that an impossible task. We rely on producers to be the “second set of eyes” that will hopefully catch what the first set missed.
Sometimes, there’s no second set of eyes, at least not immediately.
And sometimes, even a second set of eyes can miss the same error the first set missed.
The hurricane guide checklist from hell
Years ago, we offered a printed edition of a hurricane guide. The marketing department produced it each year. And each year, we would go through the guide page by page to determine what updates were needed in every section. For pages that did not seem to require an update, each one of us would go through those pages and check for typos.
The guide included a full-page checklist of items you might need to take with you if you needed to leave your home because of a hurricane threat. The list did not get updates some years.
But we proofread it every year.
And every year — no, really, every single year!! — we found a typo from the previous year. There were four or five of us who (presumably) actually read through that list for typos. Yet every year, we found one in the previous year’s printed guide that made it through.
It was maddening. We hated finding a typo because, clearly, it meant the readers had to have seen it…if they read it.
Yet there wasn’t a year that I can remember that we didn’t find a typo in the previous year’s list.
Perfection? What’s this perfection you speak of?
“Even with the army of copy editors back in the day, though, we had typos,” Quinn points out. “We were never perfect. No newsroom was. Perfection is an impossible goal. Worth striving for, of course, but impossible to attain.”
I might suggest, drawing on my faith, that there was only one truly “perfect” human being who ever walked the earth. He was crucified about 2,000 years ago. Perfection, one might surmise, isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
Yes, I try to be perfect, even here on this blog. I use spell-check. Newsrooms use spell-check, too. In fact, I often use more than one platform’s spell-check feature. I also use Grammarly.
But there are some things even a strong spell-check can’t catch. Sometimes it doesn’t flag the wrong word because it’s spelled correctly. But you meant to write stone instead of story. That’s not the kind of typo a spell-check will catch.
It’s the kind that second set of eyes should catch. But even that second set of eyes occupies the skull of another imperfect human.
Quinn compares typos to his woodworking hobby and the flaws he sees in two pieces he made that others don’t seem to notice. But in text, typos seem to stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. He points out exactly what I’ve tried to point out to complainers: Given the volume of content we produce across multiple platforms, it’s impossible that there won’t be an occasional typo.
“The number of individual keystrokes our staff taps out is in the millions. There’s no way we won’t have typos,” he writes. “Who does anything millions of times without making mistakes.”
But he pulls no punches at the end
Quinn says what every editor has wanted to say for a long time to those who send the nasty messages: stop it!
So, for those who write me such caustic notes, how about knocking off the condescension about our typos until you attain perfection in your job? Please, continue to let us know about our mistakes. We fix them online as soon as we learn of them. But enough of the anger and viciousness. The people in this newsroom are doing the best they can to cover this region with the resources we have at hand. They work at a breakneck pace that is nothing like what existed in newsrooms 30 and 40 years ago. They do that to bring you as much information as possible.
It’s a nice idea, a nice sentiment. Even a well-written argument for a little bit of grace.
But it’s hard to keep the keyboard warriors out there from acting like keyboard warriors. It’s too much fun, apparently, to be rude and mean-spirited. Even well-mannered people can forget they ever heard of grace when they click the comment or email button.
I’d love to see how they handle that kind of email and maintain their professionalism. I doubt they would succeed in that endeavor.
We can always hope…as we avoid the next typo that’s waiting to prompt another nasty email or comment.