Monday, February 4, 2013

Errata Happens...Darn It!!

As any seasoned writer knows, it's hard to fix every little mistake in a piece of writing. The longer the piece, the more chances that errata will be overlooked, especially typos. Often, it's just plain near-sightedness. You spend so much time with a piece of writing, you can't see the errors, even when they pop up in front of you. And the more you review a piece of writing, the less you see the details. This can make "letting go" agonizing. You think even the smallest error will send you to writer's purgatory where you'll languish unread, unappreciated and, eventually, completely destroyed.

Sometimes, ignorance is to blame for mistakes. We perpetuate inaccuracies of content based on the sources we use. This has happened to me so often. Every book I write goes to print with some of these errors in place, and only when an update or new edition is done can I correct them. E-books will make this less of an issue, since it's so easy to remove, edit, and reload an e-book.

We tend to be more forgiving about these content mistakes, since we are only passing along bad information, not creating it. Very little information is original, really. Most of what we write and read is composed of ideas and stories that have been recycled and re-invented in a variety of ways, sometimes for centuries. In academic writing, footnotes and endnotes will save you from the errors of content that come from inaccurate sources. You can always point to a misguided source and say: This is what so-and-so says about it, and I was quoting him/her or just repeating that same information. But in mass market work for the popular reading public, where footnoes, endnotes, bibliographies, and other formal additions are frowned upon by publishers (they feel these bore readers, and they take up vital  and expensive space), there's nothing to protect your content mistakes.

Anyone who risks having work in print will at some point suffer the indignities of having their mistakes pointed out, perhaps even publicly paraded in a book review. There are experts out there in the real world, most of them legitimate, even kind, but some critics exist who simply have an ax to grind with writers. I used to hear from a curmudgeon-like, lighthouse afficiando after every one of my lighthouse books or articles went to print. His comments were heavy on the negative side, to the point of being rude, until one day I suggested he write his own lighthouse article/book. I never heard from him again. A speaker at a writer's conference I attended in Honolulu many years ago put it well when he likened error-obsessed fans and heartless critics to those know-it-all friends who chide you about how you raise your children, yet they have no children of their own.

To continually produce, you must find something new, or put a twist on something old. Develop a thick skin--not so thick that you turn your back on legitiamte commentary--and do your best to defend what you've written and where you obtained your information. Then dutifully fix the errata when you get the chance--a new edition perhaps or a slip sheet inside a book listing the errata and correcitons. It may take several iterations to clean up the issues, and chances are you won't please the purists. It's literary evolution. I learn new information and am constantly correcting past writings.

But anyone who writes knows that errata criticism has and always will, embarrass writers. I never receive a negative criticism that doesn't make me wince, at least a little wince, and feel as if I've let down my readers. I've come to realize that writing is like disrobing in public. I'd best be ready for hard stares and rough comments!

If all writers were too frightened, too wary to publicly share their words, where would society be? Every book or article I send out carries the risk of being chastised for what is incorrect more than lauded for what is correct. It's the nature of the work. I have been a book critic myself and know how hard it is to balance an assessment. A few mistakes give a poor impression, always. This is why we rue them so when they float out of our ken during rounds of editing and why I must always set a date to be done with a book or article. Otherwise, I'll continue to pick and pick and nitpick at it. Opinion can kill an effort instantly, or launch it to fame. I always hope for some happy place between the two.

Thankfully, most readers can see beyond typos and minor errors of content. I like to think they can, anyway. The diverse reviews I've received over the years attest to that. Editors assure me readers can abide a few mistakes. I once had an editor at Voyageur Press tell me the "Amish Quilt Rule" regarding mistakes: Always leave at least a few small errors in your work, lest you offend the Divine Power in Heaven.

The Amish lead a simple, uncomplicated existence, and their ethos of humble living  and attitude is a lesson for us all. That said, I feel absolutely certain, nothing I've ever created in the way of print has offended Heaven or even approached Heavenly perfection!

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