The Pesky Typo Hunt:

And why you should take the trouble to track them down and eliminate them before they can breed

Some people argue with me when I claim that typos breed. (Just like the dust bunnies under your furniture.) But how else can you explain the fact that you can go over a manuscript, a dozen readers can go over the same manuscript, and an editor and a highly skilled copy editor can go over this manuscript, and when it goes to print there are still typos in the text? They’re breeding. I’m certain of it.

But however they’re getting there, you do want to eliminate as many typos as possible from your manuscript…before anyone besides you sets eyes on it. I’ve known people to submit their first drafts to their critique groups/critical readers and I think that’s a mistake, for the simple reason that if there are two errors in the same sentence, most people will spot one error or the other, but there are only a handful of people who will find both of them.

I’m not making this up—I read an article once, that gave the statistics. I’ve forgotten the exact number, but I think it said that something like 87% of readers will only see one error per sentence. It’s the way our brains are configured—when we find the first error, our subconscious assumes we’ve found THE problem and stops looking for others.

There’s also the fact that critiquers get tired. Most critiquers, no matter how conscientious, will only point out a certain number of problems—if there are too many problems, marking them all becomes too much work. And remember, critiquers are usually volunteers. It’s a matter of common sense for you to eliminate all the problems that you’re capable of perceiving before you pass your manuscript on to anyone else. Why waste their effort correcting mistakes that you can recognize? Your critiquers’ time is much better spent identifying the problems that you don’t perceive. And if you think that typos don’t matter, go back and read my Writing Tip from Winter ’02/’03 about writing with authority. A few typos will be forgiven. (Especially given their propensity to multiply on their own!) Flocks of typos will distract your reader from the text.

But now we come to the second major problem with typos: not only do they breed, but they possess almost perfect natural camouflage! Most people will see what they expect to see, and read what they expect to read, and it’s in that expectation that typos conceal themselves. They’re particularly well-camouflaged against the eyes of their own author. As an author, when you read your manuscript you almost always read what you intended to write—which isn’t always (alas) what’s actually on the page. And this is particularly true when you read through the manuscript sequentially and get caught up in the story. Now getting caught up in the story is usually a good thing and you certainly want other people to do it. But when you’re hunting for typos, it’s absolutely fatal—you’ll miss the typos every time.

So the answer is…don’t read the story sequentially. When I do my first rewrite of any novel, I usually add a few things I missed on the first pass, and take a few other things out, but mostly I do an intense, line by line edit, looking at sentence structure, whether I actually said what I intended to say, and whacking out those nasty typos whenever I find them. To edit my manuscript out of sequence I take the first chapter and divide it into sections, roughly half a page long. (A red pen is good for this.) Half a page, because I can usually read a section that long without getting caught up in the story. Then I number each section—say I have 24 in this particular chapter. First I go to section 12, right in the middle of the chapter, and read it one sentence at a time. I correct for grammar, style, content and anything else you can correct for at the one sentence level. Then I skip to section 24 and correct that section the same way. Then I tackle section 11, then section 23, then 10, then 22, 9, 21, 8, etc. Because I’m reading the chapter both out of sequence and backwards I don’t get caught up in the flow of the plot and can maintain my awareness of what the sentences really say—and I see many problems that I’d otherwise miss.

Is this process a bit cumbersome? Yes, though less so than you might think once you get used to it. Is it time consuming? Absolutely! If you’re dealing with a whole novel, this is a huge amount of work. Is it necessary? Yes.

If you take care of all the errors you’re able to see for yourself, it will free your critical readers to find those errors that you can’t perceive. It will also, ultimately, teach you to write a sentence that works. And when you come down to it, the sentence by sentence level is where writing either succeeds or fails. And finally, it might trim down the typo population to the point of convincing an editor that you’ve mastered your craft. (Besides, the smaller their breeding population, the fewer that will be left to procreate!) You can’t get rid of all the typos. (Or if you can, you’re a much better editor than I am.) You won’t even get rid of all the awkward or unclear sentences. But if you take the time and trouble to go over your whole manuscript backwards-and-out-of-sequence, you’ll find far more errors than you will just reading through it, even if you read it multiple times. And your writing will be the better for it.

Fall 2004

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