I’ve written about this before, but it’s one of those things that always comes back around, because my lifelong battle with typos will probably never end.
Let me ask you something. Do typos bother you?
OK. Let me ask you something else. Why?
If you’re reading a book, a newspaper or a magazine, and happen upon a typo, a misspelling, or grammatical error, does it drive you crazy? Does it tick you off?
If find a typo at the beginning of whatever you’re reading, do you assume the author’s ideas aren’t worth reading, if he/she didn’t spot the errors you did? Do you stop reading?
And here we are again. In the past week, my blogging has landed me a few unepected media appearances. it’s also earned me some tersely worded emails pointing out typos in some earlier posts, demanding that I “fix it,” and tut-tutting about my “credibility.”
To those people: even Grammar Girl doesn’t go around correcting people, but she does have some advice for those who feel an irresistible urge.
Kathleen on Twitter asked, “When is it appropriate to point out misspellings by people you don’t know? Is it ever appropriate?”
I never know how to answer this kind of question because I don’t correct people, but it’s a very common question, so I turned to Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson for an answer because they wrote a whole book about traveling around the country correcting errors on signs.
We’re surrounded by spelling and grammar mistakes. It’s only natural to want to point typos out to those who have made them. It’s the same impulse that leads us to say, “Hey, you’ve got a little something in your teeth,” when we spot an unwitting friend with half a vegetable hanging out of his mouth. In some situations, pointing out an error is worthwhile, even altruistic, but in other situations you’re simply going to tick someone off. How do you recognize the right time for speaking up?
Also, be honest about your motivation. Are you trying to help someone improve her communication-or are you just being snarky? If the latter, do not pass GO. Thank you for playing. But if you are trying to be helpful, read on!
She goes on to distinguish between public and private errors, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But she’s got some terrific advice:
- Approach with courtesy. If you think the person will benefit from you pointing out the error, be nice about it. Deferential even. Something like “Hi, I know your busy, but I noticed a small mistake in your post,” works a lot better than being confrontational or sarcastic.
- Focus on the typo itself. Separate the writing from the person. Passive voice comes in handy: “I notice there’s a typo in your post” vs. “You made an error in your post.” GG says you might even point out that everyone (including you) makes mistakes. Typos don’t mean the writer is necessarily stupid, careless, or sloppy. It could simply me he/she is human.
- Defuse tension. Yes, people are likely to get defensive, when you point out their mistakes. That’s usually because so many people don’t follow the first two suggestions. It’s not too late, however, to defuse things, with a reassurance that you didn’t mean to offend. People are much more likely to listen, and may even thank you for your help, if you don’t put them on the defensive first.
- Know when to back down. If you’ve disregarded the first three suggestions, and the offender remains defensive, cut you losses and let it go.
GG distinguishes between public and private errors, and while she spend most of the post linked above talking about mispelled signs in store windows, my guess is that typos on blog posts fall into the category of public errors. After all, I’m posting my writing for all to see, that makes it public.
Plus I think a lot of people react the same way to typos in blog posts that they do to typos in books and magazines. When it comes to those two forms of media, people get particularly exercised about errors in something they’ve shelled out money for. Now, no one is shelling out money to read my blog posts, but they do invest their time. So, it’s a reasonable comparison.
But there’s a difference between writing a blog and writing books or writing for a magazine. I haven’t found anyone who’s put it better than Penelope Trunk when she declared that writing without typos is totally outdated.
Will everyone please shut up about the typos on blogs? Show me someone who is blogging every day and also complains about someone’s typos. Just try. See? You can’t. Because anyone who is trying to come up with fresh ideas, and convey them in an intelligent, organized way, on a daily basis, has way too many things on their plate to complain about other peoples’ typos.
There is a new economy for writing. The focus has shifted toward taking risks with conversation and ideas, and away from hierarchical input (the editorial process) and perfection.
As the world of content and writing shifts, the spelling tyrants will be left behind. Here are five reasons why complaining about typos is totally stupid and outdated.
You go, Penelope!
Needless to say, I agree with Penelope’s five reasons. Here’s why.
- Spellchecker isn’t perfect. It misses words. And if your misspelling of one word is actually a legitimate spelling of another word, spellchecker won’t find anything wrong. It’s hard enough to proofread one’s own work. As Penelope points out, research shows that as long as the first and last letters in a word are in the right place, our brains fill in the rest. Thus, it’s even harder to catch what spellcheck misses. To quote Penelope, “So don’t bitch to me that I should use Spellchecker.”
For what it’s worth, this also explains why no one who’s ever scolded me about typos has ever said they couldn’t understand what I was trying to say or what word or words I intended to use.
- Spelling has nothing to do with intelligence. Just because I mispell a word doesn’t mean I’m stupid. Just because I mistype a word doesn’t mean I don’t know how to spell it. Neither of these things means I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Nor does it make me a babbling moron. As I pointed out above, no one who’s gone to the trouble to point out my typos has ever told me that they couldn’t understand was saying, or didn’t get the point I was trying to make. In fact, most of the time they noticed the typo because they got the point, and that made the error even more glaring.
- You don’t have unlimited time, so spend it on ideas, not hyphens. You might not believe it, but I’m fairly well-versed in grammar. I have a degree in English (granted, I took as many creative writing classes as I could get away with). I even edit and proofread other people’s writing as part of my job. In fact, editing and proofreading other people’s work has been my job in the past. That’s what I was hired to do.
Proofreading and copy editing one’s own work is difficult. As a writer, you’re so close to your writing that you may not even see the errors. You’re more likely to see what you meant to say or the words you intended to use. That’s why publishers hire people to do it. Unfortunately, I can’t afford to hire someone to do that for me.
Then there’s time. At work, I’m usually writing within a very finite window of time – especialy if I’m working on somethign I’m expected to post the same day. Between the time I start organizing my thoughts, and finally finish writing, I usually have to immediately pivot to another task.
So, I click “Publish” and hope for the best. The other options are to stop and proof the piece I’ve just finished, as the expense of the other task that’s now going to be late, or pivot to the next task and save the piece in draft mode, until I can get back to it and proofread it. That means it’s going to be a day late, and perhaps less relevant.
Home is another story. At home, I’m usually writing late at night, after dinner, homework, and bedtime with the kids, and after the hubby goes to bed too. The problem is I’m mentally and physically exhausted, but I’m writing something that’s probably been on the back burner for a while, and that I’m not going to find another time to write. I can either publish it, and clear my plate for the next day, or sentence it to “draft mode limbo” with the other posts I meant to get back to.
- Perfectionism is a disease. Besides, it’s no fun. Perfectionists are more vulnerable to depression, and have a higher risk of suicide. Why? Because nothing’s ever prefect. Nothing. As an imperfect human being, I claim an inalienable right to fuck up. I will no longer apologize for not being perfect. I can’t promise I won’t make mistakes. (As someone with ADD, I’ll probaby make a lot of them; more than most people, and perhaps more often.)
I will make mistakes. When I do, I will try my best to correct them, and learn from them. But I will not beat myself up for them, nor will I allow myself to be beaten up for them.
If you’re looking for perfection, and error-free writing, I’m so not your guy.
- Use the comments section for what matters: Intelligent discourse. Here’s the thing. Go back to GG’s recommendations. If you’re using the comment section to call attention to an error, chances are you’re also using it as an opportunity to be demeaning or insulting, and make yourself look smart by comparison. Otherwise, why would you need an audience to do it?
There’s a contact page on my blog, and in most other places, you can either follow a link back here or send me a private message or email. If that’s not good enough, then neither are your intentions. If it’s just not the same without a virtual audience to witness your wit at pointing out an error, or to chuckle at your insults, then save your breath and bandwidth. You’re not trying to help me be better, you’re just trying to make yourself look better.
As long as I’m writing, and as long as I’m blogging without the benefit of a copyeditor, there are going to be typos. I’ll try to avoid them, and fix them as I find them. But I’m not going to stop writing, and I’m not going to let the possibility of having some typos in a post slow me down.
But, if you’re one of those people who’s bothered to no end by typos, you probably didnt’ read this far anywayn