Saturday, September 12, 2015


I confess that among many other such thoughts, I worry that I'm slipping when I find typographical errors in my writing that I missed after reading the sentence a time or two.  Sometimes those errors find their way into my Internet posts, or in drafts meant for publication.  And sometimes I don't catch those errors in posts for a long time.

I suppose it should reassure me, or at least make me feel better, that I spot such errors in published books and especially online.  Just now I've read two articles on the New Yorker site.  I spotted two obvious errors in one, and one in the other. I recognize how they were made--a sentence is rewritten or a thought is redirected but an errant word remains, usually a small one: an "in" or an "a" or an "a the." These are byproducts of how word processing works--all this deleting and inserting.   Or a word is just misspelled--the kind of misspelling that eludes the spell-checker. Those sorts of things.

But for many year when it was a magazine and nothing else, the New Yorker was the standard for copy editing and perfectly proofread prose.  I personally never found a typo in any issue I read from the 1960s to the late 1980s, when they began appearing after the magazine changed ownership and editor.  They soon stopped, but the typos that I saw in at least a few issues seemed utterly unnatural in that distinctive New Yorker typeface.

But typos as well as bad grammar and other copy writing errors are depressingly frequent in heavily monetized online publications.  But the New Yorker?  The New Yorker!

So while I am a little reassured about myself, I am at the same time depressed by a different sign that perhaps this is no longer my time.  


It occurs to me there is a possible reason for these typos appearing on the New Yorker site and other sites that post writing by professional writers, besides just slipping standards or sloth, or even the usual excuse of the need to feed the beast with copy at a fast pace.

That possible reason is that the standard, or even the ethic, of online posts is that once posted, nothing in them is changed.  If changes are made, they must be indicated at the end, with a catalog of the revisions.

Apparently there is something unethical about correcting mistakes once the publish button is pushed.   I'm not sure why, except perhaps that this is just the Internet tradition.  Maybe it began with dated web logs, which also are apparently sacrosanct.

To which I say, sorry, but it seems like nonsense to me. Isn't the capability of changing what's published online a major advantage?  I'm pretty sure any of us who saw our mistakes permanently preserved in print would have appreciated the chance to correct them, then and there.  Changes in substance online (correcting facts, etc.) might merit an appended note, especially if in response to a comment or correction from outside.  But style matters?  I don't get it.  Maybe it's part of the aura?  Internet posts are supposed to be so spontaneous? And nothing provides the aura of spontaneity like sloppy writing. Maybe the lack of copy editing isn't just an economy, but an ethic.

In any case, I routinely change what I've written after I've posted it, to correct errors, to rewrite sentences and paragraphs in the effort to make things clearer or just better written.  I may do so several times until I am satisfied.  I've made revisions on this post, for example, at least six times so far.

The ethics of this seem clear to me.  If I have annoyed readers with typos and misspellings, or confused them with awkward writing, I don't see the point of continuing to annoy or confuse future readers if I can correct the errors or improve the writing.

In the end, I suppose both parts of this post refer to the same set of standards.  And that they are part of my identity as a writer, because I make corrections even when believing that it's unlikely many or any readers will know or care.  I'll know, and I care.

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