I’ve read several posts lately about the carelessness of authors and editors today, with typos and other errors missed, often to the point of driving the reader to dump the book for something else to read. I too notice the misspellings, confusion of names, missing words, and other slips in the text. And I too have learned to read right past them. No text is going to be perfect, and holding the writer to a strict standard of three or five errors misses the point of reading fiction or any other prose. I cringe just as much as any other writer when I come across a goof in what I’ve written, and for self-serving reasons I argue that it doesn’t hurt to be generous as a reader. That said, I have another perspective that hovers in the back of my mind.
The rate of error for any human endeavor is two percent. I first learned this in the library at the University of Pennsylvania when I occasionally thought I’d come across an error in the card catalogue (remember those?). A librarian, skeptical, mentioned that figure while examining the card in question one day, found it correct, and explained why I might have thought its location to be inaccurate. Two percent sounds minuscule, but in a collection of twenty-two million items, such as at the Boston Public Library, that means 440,000 could harbor an error. That’s not a negligible number even though it’s only two percent.
I think of this percentage when I come across an error in a printed book. In a novel of 80,000 words, the reader could expect to encounter 1,600 typos or other mistakes. That’s a lot of goofs in a typical book, and I’m guessing most of us would be too disgusted to continue reading past the first dozen.
There’s a reason we’ve come to expect a nearly perfect text. Over the decades, publishers have trained us to expect a clean page, and they achieved this with a battery of experts. Writers turned in a type-written, or sometimes a handwritten, manuscript, which then went to a content editor, next to a line editor, and finally to a copy editor. At each stage the writer reviewed the work. The text was then sent to a compositor who put words into type, and don’t think the compositor wasn’t also sometimes reading, noting what he was seeing. But once the text was set, it was printed, went into galleys, and was sent to at least one proofreader as well as the writer. Think of the number of trained people reading the novel, catching those 1,600 slips, saving the writer from embarrassment. (And consider this: many publishers charged for the correction of errors in proofs after the first ten or twenty. That may explain why some nonfiction books were riddled with errors in earlier decades.)
Most of those people don’t exist today, and if they do, they’re probably working in very specialized areas where accuracy counts more. Think of chemistry, mathematics, and other technical subjects.
I think of these things when I’m reading along and trip over a missing word or letter. Occasionally I think about writing the author so she or he can make a change in the next iteration, but I don’t do it. Instead I marvel at how proficient we’ve become at catching these little stumblers, and how clean our texts are now. We demand a lot of writers today, and for the most part we writers deliver a clean, readable narrative with few flaws to make a reader feel brilliant for catching the slip or smug that she or he never made that one. At least, we haven’t yet. Every time I catch an error in whatever I’m reading, I remember to be humble. That could be me next time.