Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Proof is in the Proof

Ok, admit it. You feel a sense of smug self-satisfaction every time you find a spelling error in a published novel, you laugh until you cry mocking newspaper headlines that say things like, “Thai Ministers Flea in Wake of Violence,” and you question the intelligence of any poet whose book has a really ridiculous spelling error in it. Now, I like ridiculing the ‘fleaing’ ministers as much as the next snob, but I have a deep, dark, terrible secret that you may have already figured out if you’ve been reading my posts regularly… I can’t spell. After I publish a post, my sister will almost always email me to tell me she enjoyed my post, and with a list of the spelling errors I need to go back and fix. Now, not only can I not spell, I’m also in the process of proofing my first book. I cannot go back and hit edit on the book... cue cold sweat. Of course, other eyes have seen the proof and picked out mistakes too, so I’m not the only English major responsible for making sure there are no grievous errors within the pages of Poets and Killers, and I am eternally grateful to my editor and copyeditor for this (not to mention my sister). However, if a few really obvious errors slip through all the proofs and into the book, I’m pretty sure I’m the one everyone is going to think can’t spell—and they would be right. Not only will people think I can’t spell, though, but I’m pretty sure everyone will think this is evidence that I am really, really dumb. When a lot of people spot a spelling error in a classmate’s power point presentation, or in the seminar paper of a fellow student, they immediately assume the person has done a half-hearted job, or that the person is sufficiently mentally stunted that even if they did put a lot of effort in, the material isn’t going to be worth considering. I've hear employers simply toss out c.v.s that contain spelling mistakes. But honestly—some of us just can’t spell. I don’t know why I can’t spell. I was read to and read a lot as a child, and my mother is a primary school teacher. I’ve always been bookworm-ish, and I’ve been writing copiously and constantly since I learned how to write at all. Furthermore, I’m old enough that I didn’t learn how to write on a computer with spell-check, so don’t go blaming Microsoft Word and technology for my problem. It’s not as though I’m lacking experience in the reading and writing department… I just can’t remember what words are supposed to look like. Words I’ve read and written a thousand times I will often have to look up because I cannot visualize words. Despite this fact, and with a lot of careful proofing, I’ve managed to get an honours degree in the language I can’t spell in, and am beginning an English MA in the fall. So, I’m not dumb, and despite my questionable choice of letters when writing words like seperately and indipendance, I do invest both time and effort in thinking through my essays and poems. I’m not saying that correct spelling shouldn’t be expected, incorrect spelling is distracting and jarring to the reader, but I do wonder if correct spelling is a reliable litmus test for the intelligence of the writer, or the literary merit of a book. Does my questionable spelling undermine my credibility as a writer or a critic? How harshly will you judge me if I let a spelling mistake get printed in my book?

Helen Hajnoczky's first book, Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising, is forthcoming from Snare Books. It won't have any spelling mistakes in it.

3 comments:

mark wallace said...

I've published quite a few books, but of them, only one has been published with no errors at all--and several have had errors that are not simply minor, detectable, and cosmetic, but even more significant. When I see an error in somebody else's book, I often feel relief.

Still, I think it's true that careful copy-editing is something that a lot of publishers just don't want to pay for anymore. I don't automatically blame them, but it's noticeable.

Lemon Hound said...

I engage in typos with some frequency, and very much appreciate the proofing process. I don't think that typos necessarily mean a weak mind, not at all. Sloppy writing/thinking is far more telling, and odious.

Clean prose is quite easy to produce, it's saying something in that prose that's difficult...

Anonymous said...

Words are so much more than their letters, unless they are bound to each fragment. Even though it must be incredibly unnerving having a first book published, don't let what should be the editor's job subdue the elation and excitement of that achievement! I think most readers will rarely remember the little typos here and there in a book - especially if that book has left a powerful impression on them - and when we do, we always blame the publishers, don't worry.