Thursday, October 15, 2009

Grappling with Gremlins

Some researcher desperate for a new problem to ponder might shed light on this question: Why do more typos and other obvious errors appear in compositions produced solely on computer screens than in those appearing in ink on paper? It baffles me, but I know the difference is real.

I can proofread and correct even brief e-mail messages several times and miss a boo boo or two. It’s frustrating, it’s irritating, and it isn’t all due to advancing age. For some time, I’ve noticed the tendency of writers of all ages to produce more than a normal amount of typos and bloopers when they do all their work electronically.

Mal Furniss, retired research entomologist, caught a dandy when he read the July 16 post to this blog. He noted my statement: “Their family has operated the farm where we stayed for about 200 years.” He commented, “No wonder your blog is named Oldgeezer.” Furniss should have proofread the blog name, but, oh well, his version conveyed the message.

I’m not a day over 150, and we really only stayed at the farm for three weeks. I went back and fixed the goof. Thankfully for me, this can be done in internet “publishing.” In paper publishing, your errors stay on the record forever. Perhaps the ability to go back and correct stories is one reason much “breaking news” reporting on the internet is so inaccurate and sloppy.

Before computers became the tools of the trade, when Furniss was a project leader and I was an editor at the Intermountain Research Station, perfection was the goal in scientific publishing. Authors, reviewers, editors, and proofreaders worked hard (at least most of them were dedicated) to ferret out and correct any mistake of any kind. In retrospect, it may have been overkill. With humans doing the work perfection was elusive, but excellence was achieved often. Errata seldom could be found in scientific journal articles or reports issued by research institutions.

This no longer was true when I briefly returned to work at the Intermountain Station in 2004. While compiling a history, I read hundreds of publications written by scientists. Typos were much more prevalent in works produced in the previous ten years than those issued earlier. This quality change seemed to coincide with abandonment of “perfect proofreading” by scientific organizations and publishers. They had started to rely on computer spelling checks and editing programs. Both miss quite a bit.

The highest quality proofreading requires two people. One reads the proofs aloud. The other compares the narration to the manuscript. The reader spells every word that is even a bit unusual and tells the manuscript holder whenever he or she encounters a punctuation mark, capitalized or italicized word, or the start of a new paragraph. If the work is long, readers tire and begin to miss things, so assignments are traded at intervals. The workers exchange the manuscript and the proofs when they change roles.

At the Intermountain Station, our proofreaders used some interesting abbreviations to speed their work. In proofreaderese, parenthesis was “paren.” Quotation mark was “wrap.” Hyphen was “hi.”

Newspapers, at least the ones I worked for, didn’t have the time or staff for the kind of meticulous work research organizations did. One person quickly read proofs and marked corrections, consulting the typed copy only when something seemed questionable.

Because I was a small-time “independent editor” in both my newspaper jobs, no one but me edited my writing before it went to typesetters. Without a sharp-eyed editor checking on my work, quite a few literary atrocities found their way from my typewriter into print. Huge amounts of word processing must be done very quickly in the newspaper world, so bloopers and typos are not hard to find in even the best products.

Several weeks ago, I ordered new business cards from the publisher of the local shoppers guide. I carefully went over every word with the lady who took my order, and left an error-free typed version. The proof I received for approval had four typos. The lady was embarrassed. She admitted they had been exceptionally busy, and skipped proofreading for my little job except for looking at the words on a computer screen. Normally, she said, everything going through their shop was printed out and proofread by two people.

That didn’t surprise me. I had been scanning the shoppers guide for six months, and commented several times on the minimal number of errors in the weekly issues. When I got home, I told Sandy I had discovered why the quality of the guide was so high.

Two days later, Sandy handed me the newest edition of the shoppers guide. She had circled a blatant mistake in a large heading in a big ad. Nobody’s perfect.

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