The Writer’s Lament

By Jason Menard

Fishermen aren’t the only people who lament the one that got away. For those of us in writing/editing positions, the one that got away is not just a reality — it’s a daily fear with which we live every day.

The one that got away, for writers and editors, is the dreaded mistake. It’s the misspelled word, the misplaced letter, or — most recently in my case — the word that eluded the delete key in a sentence that underwent one-too-many revisions.

Generally, we do a good job, but it’s a thankless one. No one ever thanks you for the thousands of mistakes we catch, or acknowledges the proper sentences we write. But you can be certain that the one mistake you made will be caught and commented upon.

It’s easy to be an armchair editor (and this is not a critique of critics — I actually prefer to get feedback on my work. It’s how you learn and grow). I know I take pride myself in catching errors that should have been caught. We all do it. Whether it’s on a restaurant’s menu, on an advertisement, or in a publication. We all take joy in catching those errors.

Often we shake our heads and say, “I don’t know how they missed that one.” Of course, how many other mistakes have we missed during the day? Probably a few — and that’s just the way life goes. I’ve read countless comments and letters to newspapers complaining about errors; I’ve yet to read one that said, “You know, I read the whole first section and everything was spelled correctly. Great job!”

I believe in striving for perfection. I want everything I write to be my best; I want to catch every mistake and I feel sick when I miss something. It’s that twist in the gut, butterflies-but-not-in-a-good-way sensation you get when you see a mistake in print or on-line. And, like that faint scratch on your new car, it’s the only thing you notice each and every time you look at that piece again.

I’m sure that even if I wrote the Great Canadian Novel, if I misspelled an inconsequential word on page 213, that’s the only thing I’d notice. It’s a hazard of the trade, but it’s also the way we get better at our jobs.

That’s why you will never hear me criticize the people in the newspaper industry. For example, one of the biggest criticisms of The London Free Press is proofreading. From spelling errors to copy that falls off the page, it’s become almost a cottage industry to criticize the staff. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are prescriptive grammarians out there making it into a drinking game.

I’ve been there, I know how hard they work. And nowadays, with budget restrictions and short staffs, it’s only natural that certain quality issues are going to suffer. I know some great people working in print media and I know that the mistakes bother them even more than they do the readers.

These mistakes are not a result of the competency of the employees. It’s simple mathematics — more work plus less time in which to do it equals more opportunities for error. It’s the same in business. The mandate to do more with less, means at some point you just have to let it go. We’d all like to spend hours revising, re-checking, and re-reading our work. We’d all love to go line by line, ensuring that every letter is in its rightful place. Unfortunately, the speed of business rarely allows that to happen. As well, especially in a business environment, there is rarely a trained editor and/or proofreader. That role usually falls to the writer and there’s an old adage that states “a writer who corrects his own work has a fool for an editor.”

In my career, I’ve written literally tens of thousands of articles, ranging from news reports to sports profiles to business communications to opinion pieces like this one. I’ve hammered out 2,500-character stories in under 10 minutes due to deadlines, which certainly doesn’t leave room for quality control. And now, with social media adding a new layer of immediacy to our communication goals, there are even more opportunities for error. None of this means writers, newspapers, or editors should get a free pass. But a little perspective may be in order.

Unfortunately, that’s the one thing we lack as writers — perspective. Of those tens of thousands of articles, a significant majority of them have been error-free. They may not have been perfect — in fact, perfection in writing is subjective, as everyone has their own style and preferences. This is doubly true in business, where the approval process almost compels people to add their own flourishes to work. But what are the pieces I remember most? The ones that have gone to print with an error.

In the end, that’s a good thing. It keeps you on your toes and ensures added vigilance when you’re editing. You do your best with the time you have, understanding that time is money — and that’s the bottom line. It’s not an excuse, it’s not an apology — it’s an acknowledgement of reality and most of the writers and editors I know, including myself, want to be perfect and strive daily to reach that impossible goal. And that’s why I get that sick feeling when I miss something.

So the next time you pick up that newspaper and notice the front-page article doesn’t end, feel free to shake your head — but try to do it in commiseration with that poor, overworked, up-against-the-deadline proofreader.

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