Why Mistakes Happen

I worked hard to make More Deaths Than One typo-free, but there are at least two errors in the published novel.

        “I’m Kerry. Kerry Casillas.” She eyed the obit-
ary. “How many of those children are yours?
Bob massaged the back of his neck. “None.”


“I thought you were in the jungle of your nightmares.”
Bob laid a had on top of hers. “I was.”
“Then let’s get you out of there. Finish the story.”

Errors in copyediting are easy to make. One website, Regret the Error: Mistakes Happen, capitalizes on this, chronicling the editing mistakes and corrections in newspapers around the world. If professional proofreaders and editors have such a hard time, what hope is there for the rest of us? Perhaps not much. And it’s not due to carelessness so much as the way we are made.

According to Joseph T. Hallinan, author of Why We Make Mistakes, we have a very narrow angle of good vision, perhaps a thumb’s worth, which is why our eyes constantly flicker back and forth — they are trying to focus on a larger area. What this means for us is that we see the beginnings of words, pick up clues, and automatically fill in the rest —  such as the e at the end of the. Hallinan writes, “people were asked to read a text and cross out the letter e every time they saw it. It turned out that the later the e appeared in a word, the more likely it was to remain undetected. Not only that, the e in the word the was very likely to be missed — 32 percent of the time.”

I also know from doing puzzles such as Word Finds that we tend to see the middle of the page more than the top and bottom lines, and we tend not to see the far sides of the text. If ever I can’t find a word, I know to look at the periphery of the puzzle. More often than not, that’s where I find the missing word. (I seldom do such puzzles any more. They’ve lost their allure after all the copyediting I’ve done this past year.) And this is where the typos in More Deaths Than One are. The first error occurs on the periphery of the page, the other error occurs in the second line from the top. (It’s easy to see here, because it occurs in the very middle of the excerpt.)

We also see what we expect to see, and the better we are at something, the more likely we are to skim. Hallinan tells the story of a distinguished piano teacher and sight reader, Boris Goldovsky, who “discovered an misprint in a much-used edition of a Brahms capriccio — but only after a relatively poor pupil played the printed note at a lesson.” Since the kid didn’t know how the piece was supposed to be played, she played it the way it was printed, not the way the experts misread it.

So what does this mean for us amateur copy editors? Go slowly, word by word. Resist the urge to skim. Double-check the first couple of lines on a page and the last couple of lines. Check the far sides of the text. And if all else fails, have your kid proofread the book for you.


(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

23 Responses to “Why Mistakes Happen”

  1. Marilyn Meredith Says:

    Oh, my, how true this is!


  2. Iapetus999 Says:

    MS Word would have caught both those issues.
    (I just tried it).
    It won’t catch everything but it will help.
    There’s probably a lot of other proofing software out there as well.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      My MS Word didn’t catch the had for some reason. It did catch the obit-ary, but since it caught all words that were hyphenated to fit on a justified line, I couldn’t tell that this was an actual mistake. I only found it when I unjustified the text to upload it on Smashwords. But I know what to look for now — people to do the copyediting for me!

  3. Iapetus999 Says:

    Oh, and try text-to-speech software too 🙂

  4. Sheila Deeth Says:

    I not only didn’t catch them in the book. I had to reread them in the post to catch them! Help!

    But thinking of text-to-speech software, if I’m trying to edit for mistakes I pretend I’m the GPS voice interpreting road names. I catch quite a few that way.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Sheila, I doubt many people caught them. Maybe I should run a contest! Of course, anyone who read this post would have an advantage, but there should be some benefit to reading my wanderings. Or are they wonderings? Either way. In this case the words means the same thing.

  5. Joan De La Haye Says:

    Thanks Pat! Great advice. I’m sending a link for this to my editor!

    Joan De La Haye

  6. Julie Kramer Says:

    Behind every good writer is a good copy editor.

  7. A. F. Stewart Says:

    Typos breed you know, when you’re not looking.

  8. Iapetus999 Says:

    Good point. The Typo Fairies come out at night and alter a line here and there when you’re not looking.
    They alo make the ” key top working at critical point in the tory.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I know someone who loses “t”s. I wonder if the typo fairy is collecting keys. Too bad the typo fairy isn’t as generous as the tooth fairy. I could use some cash.

  9. Scobberlotcher Says:

    Great advice and courage points for using your own work as an example. 🙂

  10. joylene Says:

    I think YOU and type HER. It’s beginning to freak me out. Why am I doing this? Not once but several times a month. What’s equally frightening is the word will be HER, but I’ll read YOU.

    I recorded a chapter for the radio station yesterday. Thank God my mistakes are fixed by a very diligent young man. I stuttered over the word LOWLY five times. I said, Lowie, Lonely, Lobby, Lonny, and even, get this: LAZY! And that doesn’t include the other 20 words I tripped over.

  11. Pamela Villars Says:

    Someone at work gave me this hint recently: Proofread your text backwards – from the last word to the top. That way your eyes can’t skip ahead the way they’re used to doing.

    I haven’t tried it because it seems laborious, but it makes sense.

  12. Joe Hallinan Says:

    Thanks for mentioning my book — I’m glad you found it useful!


  13. A Key to Copyediting and Proofreading | Bertram's Blog Says:

    […] [Click here to find out Why Mistakes Happen] […]

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