Everyone makes mistakes. Why are we so anxious to point them out?

I’m an editor, but I want 2024 to be the year we stop harping on typos

5 minute read
Black & white close-up photo on a laptop keyboard with a magnifying glass held closely over it.
(Photo by Agence Olloweb on Unsplash.)

What’s the fastest way to get people to contact you? It’s easy. Publish a typo, and they can’t email you fast enough.

It happened last week, when I left out a “t” in the subhead of the Wednesday newsletter and wrote, “Thanks for staring 2024 with us!”

“Y’all, I love you but proofread your headlines!” a reader quickly replied. Shit. Which headline? Where?

We do proofread. At least two of us. We always do. But that’s the nature of words and busy workers on a tight publication schedule, especially at the end of a day when I have already spent many hours on intensive editorial work.

To me, the question of why errors like this happen isn’t nearly as interesting as the question of why we’re so anxious to point them out. What are we really saying? And why does it feel so important?

They’re always watching

Some people who write to me about errors in BSR copy are urgent and kind, like a friend whispering that I have spinach in my teeth. The hallmark of these notes is their specificity: the corrector says exactly what and where the error is so I can find and fix it immediately.

BSR is great,” chimed in another morning reader who noticed the Great Subhead Typo. “Writing to let you know about a typo. You have staring instead of starting at top.” I always appreciate notes like this.

But others seem almost gleeful to catch things like typos or website glitches as if this proves I’m bad at my job or having some kind of moral collapse. They might note a mistake but not what it is or where it is. If you really want to help someone with spinach in their teeth, you wouldn’t smugly say, “There’s a tiny mess from lunch somewhere on your body.”

Putting on errors

The problem isn’t going away because the reality is that as long as a human is at the keyboard (we’ll see about AI), there are going to be typos. Yes, even with the combined forces of BSR’s writers, editors, and proofreader. It happens to all publications, even much larger, better-funded ones. Even in headlines (it’s actually a surprisingly common foible). Even books, works that endure a years-long editorial process, have typos. I saw one just last week: an errant piece of punctuation buzzing in the copy like a fly. I have the author’s email. Did I use it? No. I kept reading because it’s a good book and a typo doesn’t change that.

Professionals in every field will sometimes make inconsequential errors, but few are as publicly visible as the ones writers or editors make. Spotting typos and other language bloopers has a pretty low barrier to entry: anyone with a half-decent grasp of the language can pick up the mantle.

But I think we’re doing pretty well at BSR on the typos front. Let’s say we’re going to have two glaring typos per week. And let’s say, conservatively, that the editors will oversee about 350,000 words in the course of the coming year between newsletters and site content (for reference, a decent-sized novel can run about 80,000 words). Per word, that’d be a success rate of about 99.97 percent.

And here’s an unpopular opinion in vast swathes of the Internet: spelling, punctuation, grammar, and typing skills are not what life is all about. They don’t signify our worth as people. They’re not moral issues. Nothing bores me more than people who pile into the comments to criticize someone’s grammar rather than engaging with what they have to say as if being the your/you’re police is the pinnacle of smarts and good taste. Do you understand what someone else is trying to say? Yes? Then would you consider simply stepping off?

The editor’s hot take?

Maybe that’s a hot take, from an editor. Because I love to edit. I love to strike, sift, scoop, and sculpt those words until the brightest, clearest version of the writer’s vision is left on the page. I love working with editors and proofreaders. And yes, especially after many years on the job, mistakes leer at me everywhere, whether it’s a typo, poor grammar, confused vocab, or bad spelling: on social media, on menus, on Substacks and signage and Christmas cards. Like my mom, a career teacher, always says: we have a red pen in our brain. (I’m currently suffering deeply over a public figure who thinks veracious is a synonym for ferocious.)

But unless you hire me to do it, or I’m sure you would welcome the correction, I’m not going to spend my time pointing out language errors. Especially when the meaning is clear despite the error (and honestly, it usually is). I think unsolicited, unpaid crusades to correct others’ language are the stuff of an occluded intellect that prizes knocking others down instead of considering the merits of their ideas, and this often comes flavored with elements of racism and classism, whether or not we’re aware of it.

Do I hate that I let an obvious typo run in the newsletter? Yeah. I happened to see one of the early-morning emails I got about it while I was toasting my breakfast, and I burned my English muffin while I searched for the error and then seethed over it. I don’t think you can become an editor without an unhealthy relationship with notions of perfection.

But I didn’t feel bad for too long because it made me remember why I have my own goal of going a little easier on myself and on others. I’ll try to keep it up the next time I see a typo and the next time someone calls me on mine.

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