Why is there a typo in my book?!

Imagine this – you just bought a book. Still fresh from the bookshop, you open it on the first page, start reading and suddenly, an odd-looking word catches your attention – whoa, why is this word here?! You think about it for a brief second and then move on, because the book is interesting and you want to know what happens next. But wait, you get to page 2 and now there’s a full stop missing… and then there’s an extra comma a few pages on and then a funny-looking word break… What at first seemed like an innocent typo is now starting to bring up questions; you’re getting fed up with the book. Why is this typo here?! I’ll never buy another book by this author!, you think to yourself. But before you throw the book on to the rubbish heap, let’s look at a few reasons why there may be typos in an otherwise carefully produced text.

Why typos creep in to the text:
  1. Not enough time for proofreading
  2. Too many rounds of corrections (too much proofreading)
  3. No style sheet or style sheet changed mid-project 
  4. Too many people checking the text ad hoc (author; author’s friend/colleague/mother/neighbour; project manager (PM); PM’s colleague/manager/manager’s director; the world and his wife!)
  5. People who aren’t proofreaders stepping in and commenting and requesting changes (as above, plus: marketing, comms, typesetter, cover designer, the world and his wife)

Producing a book is time and labour intensive. It goes like this: commissioning > writing > developmental edit > copy edit > proofreading. At each stage, there are questions to the author, revisions and changes made to the text, and each with a potential to introduce errors, big and small. Let’s take the first scenario.

1. Not enough time for proofreading

When a schedule is tight, proofreading, which comes in at the end, is often the process that’s squeezed to the max. Even in generously planned schedules timelines can slide upstream and, if there isn’t enough buffer, something will have to give to meet that production deadline. Proofreaders can and do work fast, but we’re not miracle workers and if there isn’t enough time to actually read the book from A to Z then other tools will have to be used to perform the checks. They’ll still produce good results, but stuff can also be missed out (and it often is – automatic checks don’t always pick up all spelling variants and contexts and this is why human copy-editors and proofreaders come out on top!). 

A reverse of 1. is a situation where there are so many rounds of corrections (too much of a good thing…) that it leads to errors.

2. Too many rounds of corrections (too much proofreading)

This can happen when after the first proofs are checked, someone else does a second proofread and un-does the first proofreader’s changes. I won’t go into why this is never a good idea to undo someone else’s work, but it can happen. And it’s likely that the person will miss out on the less obvious instances or spellings and will introduce errors. 

3. No style sheet or a style sheet changed mid-project

Compiling a style sheet is a cardinal editing rule that should never ever be skipped. Without one, it’s impossible to ensure a consistent look of a publication. Yet, for one reason or other, not all projects have a style sheet… and with English being such a malleable language, the possibilities of spelling mistakes are endless if there isn’t a guide to ensure consistency. If a copy-editor didn’t provide a style sheet, they’ve made a proofreader’s job that much more difficult and they’ve also made it difficult for the author and publisher to prepare any updated editions that will be in keeping with the first one. It does happen though. 

4 & 5. Too many people involved in proofing

Reasons 4. and 5. are really just one reason that comes down to ‘too many cooks…’. English is such a flexible language that enforcing even the few hard and fast rules can be challenging. This may mean that it can be hard to argue one version is inherently ‘better’ than another and there may be as many ‘correct’ versions as the persons checking. So it’s vital that there is one person – PM, copy-editor, proofreader – with ultimate say over what’s acceptable for any given text and what isn’t. This will ensure that any requests for last-minute changes are dealt with appropriately.

Even the smallest change (such as spelling ‘high impact’ as ‘high-impact’ or ‘labour’ as ‘labor’) will have to be made throughout the text and once typeset there’s no other way of doing it than by automatic ‘find and replace’, which really is imperfect. For instance, did you know that if there were any hidden characters that got snuck in from a word file, such as a thin space or a non-breaking space, find and replace won’t ‘see’ the word they appear in? This is why it is never a good idea to make any global text changes using find and replace at proof stage. But it does happen, because someone (the author, PM or, I’m sorry to say, editor or proofreader) has had a change of mind. It all comes down to experience to know when to say ‘no’ to further changes, no matter who requests them, unless enough time is given to thoroughly check that nothing has been missed out. 

So as you can see, it’s not always that a book hasn’t been proofread or ‘checked properly’. Sometimes, too much care can result in the same thing – typos. But it’s still important to try to get it right. Because here’s the thing. While we are happy to overlook and forgive a small mistake or two, too many and the text loses us. We no longer see it as worth our while. After all, if the publisher didn’t think it worth their time to produce a clean, typo-free copy, why should we trust in the text itself?

If you’re looking for an experienced copy-editor and proofreader who won’t land you in a pickle of endless revisions and corrections, then why not drop me a line?

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