The Anxieties of Final Edits

Remember that manuscript I was so happy to complete in early August?  It has already reached the copy-editing phase.  I honestly don’t know whether this editing cycle moved more quickly than years past or whether this is simply another indication that time moves faster as one ages.  Regardless, my little baby (named LONG GONE)  grew from barely hatched to escaping the nest in what felt like record time.

My husband would like me to view the briskness of the editing as evidence that this manuscript was my strongest draft yet.  Because I never turn down the opportunity to embrace a compliment, I’m choosing that version of the story.

I’m reading LONG GONE aloud to myself right now, word by word, with caution and scrutiny, trying to reach the highest level of polish.

So NOT how I look when I read aloud to myself. Who comes up with this stuff?

So far, my changes have been pretty minor.  Some random pages, for example: On page 32, I’ve changed “watching him” to “monitoring him,” and changed “watching his back” to “checking his back.”  (I apparently had the word “watch” bouncing around my synapses a bit too much the day I wrote that one.)  I also changed “wine” to “Chardonnay,” because I now know a very minor character well enough to say she’d drink Chardonnay. On page 229, I’ve changed “house” to “home.”  On 243, I changed “out to the country” to “up to the country.”

I’m pretty sure these aren’t the changes that will make the difference between a starred review and not, or a bestselling book or not, but they are changes I value even if no one else notices.  I also find comfort in their insignificance.  If I can read an entire novel aloud and find myself wanting only these tiny little amendments, then I can be proud knowing this is the very best book I’m capable of writing.

But… Oh, c’mon, you knew there’d be a but.

Some of the changes I’ve made aren’t that small.  Well, let me qualify that.  They are in fact small in that they aren’t big.  I haven’t suddenly decided that a character’s motives need to change or that a plot twist doesn’t actually work.  That kind of discovery would send me leaping from the nearest window.

But some of the changes I’ve made really NEEDED to be made.  I’m slightly halfway through the manuscript and have caught two — count ’em, TWO — typos. 

That’s right… typos, the literary version of bedbugs. 

Some might say that two typos in 250 manuscript pages ain’t bad.  But those two little errors have placed a lump solidly in the base of my stomach, because they really shouldn’t be there.  I try to write every page as well as I can the first time around.  Then at the beginning of each new writing day, I read what I wrote the previous day to make sure I’m happy with it.  When I reach the final chapter, I read the entire book on my own and make further changes.  Then my editor reads it.  Then I read it again, with her comments in mind.  Then I do another edit, which necessarily requires more reading.  And then the copy-editor gets a hold of it.

And so why are there still two typos (so far) in this fucking manuscript?

At a cold, cognitive level, I know the answer.  The human mind fills in gaps.  Read this sentence and count the number of F’s: “FINISHED FILES ARE THE RESULT OF YEARS OF SCIENTIFIC STUDY COMBINED WITH THE EXPERIENCE OF YEARS.”

How many did you count?  Three?  Four?  Nope.  Believe it or not, there are six letter F’s in that sentence. 

If you counted them all on the first try, you’re a genius.  And you should be my copy-editor.  But if you counted fewer, you, like most people, glossed over the f’s in the word “of,” which is used three times in that sentence.  We read for content.  We skip over those pesky articles and prepositions.  And so we make mistakes. 

At least I know it’s not me.  I find typos in books all the time.  A few years ago, a #1 bestselling thriller had a typo in the very first sentence.  (Gold star if anyone can name the book.  I won’t.) 

But despite the fact that typos are understandable and common, I won’t stop trying to stomp out every last one.  Finding one typo now will save me the scores of emails I’ll surely receive down the road, informing me I’m an idiot. (See this post for my thoughts about these kinds of emails.) 

And so here I sit in my office, reading each and every word aloud, with caution and scrutiny, because that — combined with the the layers of check within my writing process — is all I know how to do.  The fact that I’ve found two makes me terribly nervous.  If the layers of review missed two in the last version, how many did I miss this time? 

I love to learn from others, so if you have any tried and true tips for finding those pesky typos, please share them in the comments.  Bonus points if you’re willing to share any typo gems.  Here’s a doozie.  Earlier this  month a reporter for website published the following correction based on a typo: “This blog post originally stated that one in three black men who have sex with me is HIV positive. In fact, the statistic applies to black men who have sex with men.”

(And if you find any typos in this post, which you surely will, feel free not to tell me.)


36 thoughts on “The Anxieties of Final Edits

  1. Jake Nantz

    I worked for a real estate magazine some time back, when our competitor made news nationally. Made it all the way to Leno, in fact. They had an ad where they typed in the copy and didn't do a close enough job of editing. It was something like a 4BR, 2.5 BA home with Master Down, fireplace, and french doors that opened to a huge wooden deck. Except that isn't what they printed and published. They were one vowel off. The ad said nothing about a *deck*, if you take my meaning.

    Oops. I still use that one with my students to explain that It doesn't matter what they *meant*, it matters what they *wrote*.

  2. Eika

    I'm going to be submitting to agents soon, and just went through my manuscript with a fine-tooth comb, and, yes, reading it aloud. What made it through the last three drafts and four writers who agreed to beta it? 'The room expands four strong, sturdy oaks.'

    My desk bears a permanent forehead mark from that one, and the giant tree house that once housed fifty people now has a main room that SPANS four oaks. Woops.

  3. Elizabeth

    What does the F-word add to the following sentence?

    "And so why are there still two typos (so far) in this fucking manuscript?"

    Why not edit that out?

  4. JT Ellison

    Alafair, I an hopeless, HOPELESS, when it comes to finding my own mistakes. So when I'm done, done, done, I always print the manuscript out in a totally different font. It helps my brain readjust to be able to look for problems. I had a couple of books that the copyedit inserted typos instead of fixed them, so I'm always vigilant. But I'm not perfect.

  5. Alafair Burke

    I've also had errors added in during the copyediting phase, and it's maddening. Louise, even as I was typing the "count the f" test, I thought I was making a mistake because I could only find five.

    Elizabeth, I don't drop the f-bomb frequently, but when I do, it's because no other word manages to capture my level of frustration. This is one of those times. I am so sick of looking at that manuscript, my eyes are crossing. Sorry if that offends you, but if writers censored themselves to avoid potential offense, well, I wouldn't be a very happy reader.

  6. Spencer Seidel

    Hmm, my "trick" is to read the entire thing aloud, but that seems to be what everyone does! And here I thought I had something special to add to the conversation 🙁

    All I can say is, you aren't alone. I once found a typo in the FIRST SENTENCE of my manuscript. I don't have to tell you that it was quite a depressing moment. I had a repeated word ("the") in it. Three people read it in addition to me, and no one saw it. Unbelievable.

  7. PK the Bookeemonster

    Elizabeth : I'd argue that cursing—and cursing well—is effective; it wakes people up—just as you woke up when you read that. Cuss words are a part of language and expression,one just has to learn where to use the word for total and effective impact. Isn't that what writers do?

  8. Grace

    Proofing my manuscript for the first time, I realized I had somehow switched to phoentic spelling. I don't no how it happened. Far from my university daze when I spelled words korectly with my eyes closed. So glad I have a gifted reeder.

  9. Alafair Burke

    Spencer, the dreaded word repeat!

    PK,you found all six? I'm in awe!

    Jake and eika, thx for sharing the examples. Those are great.

  10. Sandy

    When I taught English in a high school, I always told students to read their work aloud for mistakes in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure. The key, though, is to speak slowly and not to allow your eyes to get ahead of your voice. For style issues, reading it aloud into some type of recording device and then listening to it is a good idea. For the typo-type proofreading, I have heard of people reading the pages out of sequence; of course, this will do zippo for analyzing continuity of story…

  11. Sandy

    When I taught English in a high school, I always told students to read their work aloud for mistakes in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure. The key, though, is to speak slowly and not to allow your eyes to get ahead of your voice. For style issues, reading it aloud into some type of recording device and then listening to it is a good idea. For the typo-type proofreading, I have heard of people reading the pages out of sequence; of course, this will do zippo for analyzing continuity of story…

  12. Debbie

    Both an advantage and a disadvantage is the adaptive software I use. It has a speech component I depend upon to type, repeating every letter I type unless I'm going fast in which it'll say the completed word when I hit the space bar or, whatever word I'm on when it gets a chance to get a word in edgewise.

    I've learned to identify "too" from "to", and "Whose" from "who's". But it will pronounce extension and extention the same. Pronounces learn-ed, and doe's (does). It's also not fussed about Canadian spellings. Won't pronounce any accented letters (fiancé or Zoë….) so I get fee-yonk or Zo.

    As a result of the software, I have discovered dozens of words that are spelled the same but are pronounced differently such as live, invalid, wind, graduate because for most, only one is programmed in. It does have read and read (red) but arbitrarily chooses which one to use and is nearly always wrong!

    Oh, I'm also the queen of run on sentences. My software, it'll just pause if a sentence is long, regardless of the fact that the punctuation is missing! But a big advantage is that it doesn't fill in missing words or skip over a repeated word and they are easy to spot. I even found a mistake on a chapter excerpt on-line.

  13. PK the Bookeemonster

    Alafair: I had a REALLY tough 8th grade English teacher, Miss Price, at Lewis and Clark Junior High School and I was on guard when you said to count the "f's". 🙂

  14. Tammy Cravit

    What Debbie said. I tend to let my Mac's text-to-speech software read sections to me while I'm editing. This works for both fiction and legal briefs and such. The text-to-speech software tends, in my experience, to get tripped up by typos, so I can often find them based on whether the spoken text sounds right. Helps with those repeated words, too.

  15. Dudley Forster

    I despise typos and I’m really good at them. When I was in high school boys didn’t take typing. In college, I had my papers typed. In practice I dictated everything. So I am a poor typist. Working on retraining, but 30 years of bad habits are hard to break.

    Having typos in legal documents is particularly horrible. Not only can it change the meaning of the document or render it nonsensical, but judges tend to question other aspects of your pleadings if there are typos in them. In our law firm we had a paralegal whose family escaped the fall of the Shah. Her first language was Farsi, her second was French and her third was English. Everyone wanted her to proof their documents because she didn’t read through words.

    The worst typo I made was in a real estate trust document. It was supposed to be “ancestors” but was typed as “incestors”. The client caught the error and thought it was funny, but I was mortified.

    Two of my banes are autocorrect and cut and paste. I have limited autocorrect because my bad typing sometimes leads Word to believe I am typing something completely different than I intended. Cut and paste invariably leads to repeated words or clauses that make little sense. To make matters worse, I am not a good “on screen” proof reader. I need to print out a document to proof it properly. This is all well and good for a MS but rather silly for even a long blog comment.

    And why is it that you can read a post three times and then the minute you hit the post button you see a typo? Drives me nuts.

  16. toni mcgee causey

    Oh, I am probably the worst at seeing my own mistakes until it's too late. (As a stellar typo I made in a blog here a while back proved.) I tend to skip read, and am a little dyslexic, and have a son and husband who are far more dyslexic, so I've learned to read all sorts of jumbled letters and know what the word was supposed to be. Unfortunately, that's my brain autocorrecting for me and I don't always see the mistakes, and so miss them.

    The way I compensate for this is to read the manuscript once, backwards, at each phase. The last final manuscript turned in to the editor, then the copy edit phase, then the galley phase. I start at the last sentence and read just that sentence. Then read the next-to-last sentence, and so on. It helps. I'm always surprised at how much cleaning up of sentences I'm able to do (not just typos, but stylistically as well), by going in reverse.

    [There are epic typos in the trade paperback version of book 2, which was a disaster when going to press. At the galley phase, after all the copy edits had been done, something went wrong at the typesetters. The book came back almost completely garbled. Whole sections were nonsense. Characters had been renamed, and then returned to their proper names in some chapters and then renamed again in others. Chunks of text had been left out. SMP was horrified, as much as I was, and my editor, two proofreaders, the head of the production department and I all proofed that book, but we had only two days and it still managed to have major issues. I cannot tell you how grateful I was to SMP who let me re-edit that book before it was re-released in mass market. Entire sections were put back to rights, text added back in that I hadn't realized in the typo-search had gone missing. I always recommend the mass market versions now.]

  17. Debbie

    Toni, I don't remember the stellar typo…please share again?
    Dudley were you working for Jake's competition? Somehow, and I don't know how :), I see those two errors going together! Hmm, what could it be?

  18. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Ugh…I got me a painful typo in BEAT, and I'm not going to hang a light on it now. But, suffice to say, the residents of San Francisco will pick it up in a heartbeat. I'm hoping for a second printing so I can correct it.

  19. Debbie

    Well then Stephen, we'll all just have to buy copies of Beat as gifts to help get you to that correction! 😀

  20. Debbie

    Hmm Toni, that'd be another good blog title for editing errors and missed typo's with a high degree of punnyness! )Again with the f's. 🙂

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alafair

    I'm just in the midst of copyedits right now, so I feel your pain. And I'm horrified at how many minor errors made it through to this stage. Thank goodness for another chance to go over the t/s and eagle-eyed copyeditors.

    One of the best/worst typos I came across was a local paper who ran an advert for a local country club, and missed the 'o' out of country…

    And the history essay that claimed Elizabeth the First could never get any rest because Mary Queen of Scots was always hoovering in the background…

    Debbie – I think a lot of people have trouble with the final 'ë' on my name. I hate being called Zo, but I'm getting used to it ;-]

  22. lil Gluckstern

    I got the six fs, but only because these tests are popular among email forwarders. And Stephen, I live south of SF, and caught it, but I wasn't going to say anything. Hope you go into Second Printing. BTW, there is a spelling goof in The Reversal, so you are all in good company. Meanwhile, Alafair, I'm looking forward to your new baby.

  23. pari noskin taichert

    A couple of ways to find typos:
    Read the text backwards. It's incredibly tedious, but it works. I had to proofread professionally for a few months and that's one we used.

    Another: use a piece of paper to cover everything but the sentence you're reading. That helps with the glaring typos.

    Do I do this with my own work? Rarely.

  24. Dudley Forster

    One of my favorite typos was on a bar exam. I was grading the ethics question. The facts have a lawyer putting a hold harmless clause in a fee agreement. This is both unenforceable and unethical. One of the examinees in his or her haste to complete the answer left out the words “of liability”. The sentence read, “It is unethical for a lawyer to relieve himself.” At dinner that evening, we informed bar counsel that his workload was going to increase sharply due to this new ethical requirement.

  25. Reine (Marie-Reine)

    Eliabeth, you don't like the fucking f-word?

    Alafair, I only found four – three tries! I had to read your "of" explanation. When I'm checking for typos in my own writing, I use the grammar check, because if the word is spelled right but doesn't make sense, the grammar check will usually pick up on it.

  26. Catherine

    I surprised myself by spotting the six missing f's. However maybe one part of my communications minor helped. I did a fairly intensive editing subject at Uni a couple of years ago. Going into it, I was reasonably good at spotting a whole slew of problems…however it was the trinity of the, of, and that, I really learnt to concentrate on. As I was reading that sentence I remembered to not forget the little words too.

    I had an Art teacher in high school who used to get us to paint from an upside down photo to show us how much we interfered with perspective. It was surprising how much better we were not filling in the blanks our minds eye usually supplied us and actually painting what was there. In the editing class I had to turn this into a game or go mad. A straight through reading multiple times could still have me skipping over typos. However if I used colour to strike off paragraphs…and start from the bottom, I had a much better success rate.

  27. Alafair Burke

    Sorry to be slow to reply to these fantastic comments. I was – you guessed it! – copyediting. I'm up to four typos missed during the copyedit and have asked for a few extra days to do another pass.

    My mother is good at catching typos, and I suspect it's got something to do with the fact that she learned English as a second language. Or maybe she's just better at this stuff than I am. I'm going to sic her on the manuscript in the next pass. I'll also try the backwards suggestion, but, wow, it sounds incredibly painful.

  28. Allison Davis

    Ok, we're all sending our manuscripts to Dudley to proof. I found all six "f's" right away but it's easy in someone else's manuscript. Try finding them in your own.

    I have years of proofing legal briefs to find the typos because nothing turns a judge off more than finding stupid errors in the brief. The judge then assumes that you were also careless with your legal precedent….

    Still, nothing like another set of fresh eyes to review.

  29. Doug Riddle

    Many years ago I worked in the layout department of a large printing company. The owner's wife headed a charity made up of the wives of local business leaders. One of their fund raisers was to publish a calendar showcasing photos of local sights around town. Which would then be printed by our company.

    This was a very big deal at the company since this was the wife's project. Operators were handpicked to work on the project and make the yearly date corrections.

    One year when the calendar came out it had a new holiday…………Easter Saturday.

    Thank god, I was on vacation when the job had gone through.

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