They always win.
Yes, you can catch most of them if you try. If you’re the sporting sort you can hunt them down like the dogs they are and wipe them out with glee.
Sooner or later, however, one of them will survive long enough to make a fool of you.
I was reminded of this yesterday, shortly after I found a typo in an Agatha Christie mystery that was first published in 1926. It’s not clear (at least to me) from the copyright page when that particular paperback edition was produced, but in any case it was by no means a newly-minted story.
Here’s the offending sentence:
you get your feet damp, and where all kinds of un-
pleasant things may drop on your head.
Agatha Christie ~ The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
That kind of typo can be particularly hard to catch, although modern word processors are good at pointing out such redundancies. (Here’s a famous example of the same thing.)
Now, what caused me to remember that typos always win was not the Christie quote itself. No. Finding the Christie quote actually prompted me to feel cocky about my own ability to find such mistakes. An entire authorial empire exists around the Christie name, and yet the powers that be couldn’t catch that brazen error?
No, what reminded me that typos always win was a tweet I re-posted shortly after finding the Christie typo. Because there was a typo in that tweet. In a written work limited to 140 characters.
Here’s the gaffe in all its glory:
A Fiction Workshop Primer: http://bit.ly/aGZ8AN Including a caution about workshops the require authors to read their stories aloud.
Yes, that’s right. I not only finger-fumbled my way through that short bit of copy, but I posted and re-posted the same mistake twice. That I happened to spot the error at all was due only to chance.
Maybe I was tired. Maybe I was worn out from writing other stuff — and I have been writing a fair amount of other stuff. Maybe something distracted me. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
It doesn’t matter what the reason was. I missed it. And the reason it doesn’t matter is that at some point the whole typo-identifying process becomes a statistical question. How much time and effort do you have to throw at any text in order to be certain there are no mistakes? Yes, I should have caught the blindingly obvious brain cramp in my tweet. But that tweet belongs to a day in which I produced at least 5,000 brand-new words aimed at various disparate objectives.
The real agony of the typo is not that it exists, but that it is a self-inflicted wound. It is the bloody blade in your finger at the cutting board. It is the liberated digit at your circular saw. It is the crumpled bumper of the car in front of you as you fiddle with your cell.
When a typo survives you have only yourself to blame. And yet you cannot win, no matter how many sanctimonious onlookers beg to differ. The best you can hope to do is limit the number of mistakes.
Looking back, I’m not sure I even re-read my tweet before posting. So that’s the first lesson. Re-read everything at least once.
If I did re-read it, I clearly did so in a distracted manner. So that’s the second lesson. Find a proofreading gear in your head and consciously drop into it for that specific task. Don’t allow your mind to wander or your eyes to speed over your words. Slow down.
If I did re-read it, and I did so in a focused manner, the only remaining explanation — short of a medical emergency — is that I was too tired to concentrate. And that’s the third lesson. If you’re tired, give serious, serious consideration to holding off on publication until you’re rested — even if what you’re writing is a single sentence.
Do your best. Just know that it will never be perfect. You may manage to put out a clean novel, or short story, or tweet, but sooner or later a typo will survive.
Make peace with that now.
And by the way. If you run across a typo in another writer’s content, feel free to drop them a line. I’ve done it plenty, and no one has had anything to say in reply but thanks.