03 January 2011

Typos and Reputation

by Carrie Bailey

There's a continuum of writing between letter splatter with no discernible syntax or grammar and perfection, dry, dull, utterly risk free perfection. While some writers strive toward the latter in their work and edit until their hands permanently cramp, some writers are also missing the point. The rules of writing exist to facilitate communication and they ought to serve that purpose. 

Of course I'm impressed with myself when I find a typo or a spelling error or a grammatical mistake in a professional publication. However, this fleeting joy can lead to a slippery slope, one I believe many writers experience at one point or another in their careers.

Picture it. The young writer Jane identifies her first typo in a more established writers work and is flooded with confidence. She goes home and tells her mother who congratulates her...now her mind is swirling with all the brain chemicals that drug addicts and extreme sports enthusiasts only dream about. So, Jane begins correcting her friends' work. Her teachers praise her. You can see where this is going, can't you? She takes a job and is recommended due to her attention to detail. Jane edits her college newspaper. Typo after typo is identified by young Jane and writers retreat in embarrassment as she identifies errors in every one's emails, texts, and even the notes they leave on their roommates' doors after having one too many. Then one day, Jane is challenged by a writer who cites another style manual or just claims that their is precedent to leave the comma in. Rage wells up inside young Jane and she does what everyone knows she would do. Jane she smiles, leaves the room, goes back to her bare desk with nothing but an open laptop on it, and signs the other writer up for twenty mailing lists for tobacco products and bulk sale granny panties.
Poor Jane. I think everybody knows her. Unfortunately, they haven't seen her darkest side. Jane can't write. She's been paralyzed by her own quest for perfection. Images of smug writers finding fault with her manuscript haunt Jane's dreams. When she puts the pen to paper, she can only think of what criticism might follow. In fact, Jane has never completed any work and is no where near being published. Poor Jane. 

Every writer must come to terms with the reality of human error at one point or another in their career. Writers will make mistakes and often, the writer is aware of the error they made, but still overlooked it in a creative frenzy. Typos are inevitable and even the most careful editor will someday overlook one. However, the typos do not define the writer. The rules of writing can be glorified, but when they become an ends in themselves rather than simply the means to facilitate communication, the point has been lost.
Jane needs to know that it's okay to not be perfect. When we see one typo too clearly, whether our own or others, we can loose sight of the manuscript and become paralyzed creatively. Excellent grammar and punctuation are important for communication, but mistakes are part of being human, yes, even overlooking typos. 

When you identify a typo, by pointing it out to a writer, you are helping them improve their work. And if you do so graciously, the favor will probably be returned somewhere down the road. If you met someone who judges you based on a few minor errors, remember Jane. There are a lot of Janes on the road to publication. Don't kick them. Just ask them about their own work, offer to look it over, then point out what they are doing right and watch the Jane discover a new, more positive, source of pride.


  1. I've read books traditionally published and independently published, both with typos. It really doesn't matter to me, unless there is an overabundance of typos. What matters is the story.

  2. I've seen both, too. I have also seen books with almost ten typos per page and wondered...HOW?

  3. True, well written, and incredibly free of typos! :)

  4. Do you know what's odd? When I write straight through without editing, I have no typos, but when I correct my own work too much...typos and errors everywhere!

    But you know, I think there is a little Jane in every writer. I honestly do.

  5. Oh this is so true. As an editor, I've noticed that I've placed an insurmountable value on grammar/spelling and PERFECTION. Yet, in my quest to deconstruct others' writing, I find myself not being able to write as freely and with as much gusto as I used to.

    OH CRAP.

  6. It's okay Susana, I think we're all susceptible to this and the best part of realizing it is that we can ease up and find the muse again :).

  7. Your advice is very good. I have just found this post and I am completely in love with your work. I fear I am going to be stuck reading this all day.

    -James Wells