Lately, I’ve been involved in lots of conversations about proofing things. Or editing things. Or copy-editing things. These terms are used interchangeably, though in truth they mean different things.
Full confession here – I have always been damn proud of my ability to string words together. I never, ever doubted myself when a writing project was looming due; I knew I’d put something down on paper that was good. This sounds arrogant, but it’s true nonetheless. Being able to write quickly and decently has always been a point of pride.
Here’s another scandalous confession; I expect typos. GASP! I know, right? How can I be a marketing professional and not fear the misplaced period or the damn autocorrect that turns an intended word into a mistake? Oh, make no mistake, dear readers, I do fear those things. My stomach hurts just thinking about them. I also know, from many years of experience, that they WILL HAPPEN. We can proof
ing something 16 times, and that rogue gerund will be missed. In fact, just this very evening, there was a typo in something we put out, and doggone it sucks and I’m going to sweat about it all evening and into the morning, I’m sure.
Here is my highly unscientific reasoning behind this phenomenon; we write more words these days, and so by the law of averages, we will make more mistakes. We have less time to proof, and odds are we’ll be interrupted 8 times before we’re done, so we’ll miss something. And finally, we read so much more that our brains are wired to read what we want to read, even when something is misspelled. You know I’m right; you’ve seen those tests on facebook and tumblr too.
And yet, all you have to do is mention the serial comma on the social interwebs and writers of all ilks will explode in virulent defense of whatever side they claim. I personally have no need to force a serial comma on the English language, preferring instead to use it when it’s necessary to solve gnarly grammar puzzles, but I’m in the minority. But that’s not the point of this post (though I wonder if the passionate fans of the serial comma will be able to refrain from defending it).
But here’s the thing, fellow writers. I want us to spend as much time worrying if our writing is good. I want us to fret over the structure of an argument, the cadence of a phrase, the impact of voice. I want us to worry about the words we pick. I want us to care about telling a good story, the right story, the story our readers need to hear.
And I also want us to freak out about serial commas, within reason, and spelling always. Always.
Because, here’s the thing. We need to be obsessed with both.
I know this. Want to know how I know this?
Because I once wrote a cover letter. A cover letter I thought was pretty damn good. For a job I really wanted. And after I submitted it, I discovered it had a typo in it.
How could I have missed it? I’d proofed that damn letter hundreds of times. I’d read it backwards. I’d had an outside party read it. Cue self-flagellation.
I lost sleep over this typo. I wondered if it meant I was a fraud, a bad writer who’d sailed through hundreds of term papers and a 32-page thesis by some hocus-pocus I hadn’t known I was employing. I agonized over the fact that I might not get a job because of this typo. I really, seriously wondered if the course of my life would be altered by a “g” where there should have been an “e.”
And then, guess what? I got an interview.
I was asked, in the interview, about my proofreading skills. And without missing a beat, I said they were good, which I still believe. I was also asked how I felt about mistakes. And without missing a beat, I said that I hate them, but they happen. The only thing to do is own up to them and try not to make them again. And I knew, as I said those words, that I believed them, and if my typo cost me my job, I was searching in the wrong place.
As you can probably guess, the typo didn’t cost me the job. Oh, they made sure I knew about it, but they hired me anyway, and I recently learned that, despite the typo, the cover letter that I thought was good? It was. It was good enough to prompt them to overlook the typo.
Overlook the typo. Yes, you read that right. The content and narrative of my cover letter were good enough that they were willing to forgive my error, and hire me for a job that requires, wait for it, excellent writing and proofing skills.
And thus we arrive at the point of this post. We out there in this magical world of words need to care about the story as much as we do the style. We can’t let up on either pedal – we have to push for excellence in how we use our commas, and in how we work to change minds.
Let’s not get lost in the details, my friends, but rather use them to make our words sing.
And always check our spelling.