Those who read are an exacting bunch. We grew up with professionally proofread books, back when publishers could still afford to pay someone to make sure no spelling mistake got by, no errant comma, sneaky typo, sloppy grammar or lazy punctuation. We had high expectations of our reading material. Now we tend to notice when something on a page is wrong; it’s jarring. “How in heaven’s name,” we exclaim, with a sense of superiority, “did they miss that one!”
Go to work for a weekly newspaper. It will humble you in a hurry. As painstakingly as you manage all the information that goes through your hands, there will be errors: minor, glaring, and everything in between. There will be names misspelled in spite of your best efforts; there will be wrong names altogether! There will be numbers dropped, miscounted, mixed up. You will look at something twice and not see that it’s not what it should be. You will have trouble understanding something as written, scratch your head, sort it as best you can, and still manage to mess it up. When, after the newspaper is printed, you flip through it for the pleasure of seeing the result of your labour, you will surely find one godforsaken glitch that will make your teeth grind in frustration.
You’ll cringe at the injustice of it all. You worked so diligently and still it’s not perfect? Perhaps, you’ll tell yourself (small comfort that it is), most readers won’t notice. You’ll hope it’s obvious that for every mistake that gets into the paper, 100 mistakes never made it. Yet certain blunders must be corrected and apologized for. You screwed up? You’ve got to straighten your spine and carry on.
Mostly you wonder how this could happen, considering how careful you were. Eventually you come to accept that it just does; there seems to be no getting around it when you’re handling thousands of words a week and dozens of photographs, and it all has to be done yesterday. There’s a long list of things to do and a deadline to meet. You don’t have a spare moment to wallow in regret; it’s already time to get busy putting the next issue together. You do the pick-yourself-up, dust-yourself-off, start-all-over-again thing and vow to do better. You’ll pay closer attention! You’ll double-check twice instead of once!
These days, when a stupid mistake jumps out at you from the pages of a novel, or the shamefully muddled headline on the front page of a daily makes you shake your head, you leap right down off your snooty horse, sadly aware that “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” You’re slightly less quick to judge, to gloat, to delight in the evidence of someone else’s imperfection. (Only slightly; old habits don’t dissolve so easily.) You know that you, yourself, are going to get another turn on the merry-go-round of editors’ nightmares. There’s no getting off it.
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