Friday, September 21, 2012


In the not to distant past, when you were making simultaneous marks in the worlds of writing and publishing, you had frequent association with a craft where perfection was a given.

That craft was typesetting.

At the time, you were used to seeing long strips of foolscap paper representing the typeset materials before they were arranged in page format. 

If you saw an apparent mistake, such as the word “manuscript” rendered as “manuscurt,” your next step was to check the manuscript.  If the manuscript indeed said “manuscript,” you made the appropriate proofreader’s symbol around “manuscurt” and next to it, the initials PE, for printer’s error.  The compositor by tradition corrected the error without charging the publisher.

Even during the next shift from the so-called “hot metal” of the Mergenthaler linotype to photocomposition, compositors stood by their standard of complete accuracy.  If a project got into type with errors, whether the errors were PEs or the publisher’s, the publisher took the hit for missing the typographical error.

You were reminded of such nostalgia as you read through the final set of proofs for your latest project, mindful that these pages are no longer called proofs, rather they are ARCs, advanced reading copies, sent forth to review sources and blurb sources, with a band across the cover that reads “Advance Reading Copies.”   On the back cover, there is a bold notice: “This is an uncorrected proof.”

Yours is pretty well corrected, although you did find manuscript misspelled, and you did see in a longish reference you’d made to William Faulkner’s novel. As I Lay Dying, a character named Jewel Bundren referred to as “her.”  Nope.   Jewel is indeed a man, the favorite son of the character about whom the novel takes its title.

In an earlier set of proofing, you discovered in the text the statement that Captain Ahab was the only survivor of Moby Dick. 

The standard courtesy is for the author, particularly in a work of non-fiction, to take responsibility for all the errors.  You have no problem with this even though you’re pretty grounded with the knowledge of how the word manuscript is spelled, who the only survivor is of Moby Dick, and the actual gender of Jewel Bundren.

In publishing process as in life, there are ample opportunities for mistakes.  Some of these opportunities transcend mere knowledge of information or, indeed, of spelling. Although you can often catch some of your mistakes, there is no certainty that you will catch all of them, a lack of certainty that bridges the worlds of reality and writing. 

Some of these mistakes originate with you, either from inadvertent decisions or complete ignorance.   The very individuals whose job is to support the accuracy of the project may introduce other mistakes.

Mistakes sprout up about you like unwanted hairs growing in places you’d not thought programmed to grow hairs under any circumstances. You make enough mistakes not to be overly disturbed by their frequency or to cause you to hesitate before making most decisions, your operating philosophy being that a morbid fear of mistakes will in the long term produce more mistakes than not.

You tend to get beyond bad situational mistakes the way you get beyond the number of games of chess you have lost, the sheer number of those losing games being enough to steer you away from chess encounters and toward situations and events where you have a greater chance of success.

There are relationships you’ve had that were mistakes from the beginning, but since you ventured into these with good, open faith, you are not so concerned about relationships as you are about chess.

You’ve made mistakes with written things, leaving too soon, staying too long, taking the wrong point of vantage, underestimating or overestimating the theme or importance or how you felt or how you allowed fear and impatience to influence your departure or diagnosis.

Writing and life and mistakes all go together, a kind of existential fraction where risk is the denominator.  Neither life nor writing without risk of mistake can amount to much of interest.  This is perhaps the main reason why there are so many things you didn’t finish—you didn’t see the risks to take.

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