Typo Taming

The difference between a typo and the kind of errors I’ve been talking about up to this point is that the person creating the typo probably knows the rule, knows the correct word to use, but hasn’t managed to get their fingers to put down exactly what was in their brain. We all do that from time to time. Some people do it frequently.

Back in the Jurassic Era when I was a copy editor, we still had people called “typesetters” who would take a non-electronic manuscript and key it into a computer. They made mistakes, but they made fewer mistakes than some authors do when they type their manuscripts directly into a computer. For better or worse (and probably, on average, for better), those days are gone, and we’re all responsible for typing our own manuscripts.

If you’re not a very accurate typist, you need to work with that reality and check your work more carefully, though I also suggest that you type more slowly and strive to be accurate in the first place. Once a mistake is in the manuscript, the chances of even a good editor missing it are about 10%, and if you make hundreds of them that means you’ll have tens of errors. I’ve seen manuscripts that have been through three editors and multiple beta readers and still have a dozen errors in them, because they started out with so many.

Speech-to-text software has come a long way, but I assume it’s still subject to choosing the wrong word and has to be checked over very carefully--even more carefully than if you type directly.

Some of the most common typos to check for are:

  • an/and
  • if/of/on/it/is
  • in/on
  • of/off
  • the/then/them/they
  • then/than
  • to/too
  • we'll/well
  • where/were
  • you/your
  • missing closing quotation mark
  • missing period
  • missing words, including: to, is/was/be, not, and, the/a/an, had, with, it, of (you can see the pattern, I think: small words that have a mainly grammatical role in the sentence)

The Perils of Revision

If you revise a sentence (and you should be revising your sentences), take a few extra moments to check that you’ve changed everything you need to change and left it in a consistent state, in which it makes sense grammatically and means what you intended.

Check that it still makes sense in its context (the sentences to either side). For example, if you move a sentence that starts with “It”, and the object referred to by “It” now occurs in the middle of the previous paragraph, you’ll need to change “It” to a clearer indication of which object you mean. (The same with “He” and “She”, of course.)

Check that you haven’t cut out information that you were going to use later on, or, if you have, that you’ve put it in somewhere else.

If you’ve switched a name for a pronoun or vice versa, check that you haven’t also left the original word in place. I’ve seen a few sentences like “I turned the it on” or “I saw him John” in published books.

Check that your verbs and nouns agree in number--that you don’t have a singular noun with a plural verb, or vice versa. If you list several things, the verb needs to be plural:

The aardvark and the alligator were walking down Main Street when it happened.

Spotting the Typos

Some editors can train themselves to see the words that are actually on the page, rather than the ones that they expect to see. This overcomes the natural human tendency to see what we expect and fill in the gaps (like missing words) without even noticing. Fortunately for my own work, but unfortunately for my uninterrupted enjoyment of other people’s, I’m one of the people who see what’s there, even though I haven’t worked as an editor in 20 years.

You, however, probably don’t have that skill (going by statistical likelihood). So what are some tricks to ensure that you haven't missed words from your sentences, or messed them up in some other way?

There are a few. They’re tedious, but if you know you often make the mistakes, you need to practice them.

  1. Read backwards. This makes you see the words one at a time.
  2. Read upside-down. I used to do this when I was an editor. I don’t see it offered as a tip very often, but it worked for me. I’m a fast reader, and reading upside down slowed me down enough that I could notice the errors instead of gliding past them.
    If you read on paper or on an e-reader like a Kindle, reading upside down is straightforward, but on a computer screen you may need to output the text to a PDF file and then rotate it in your PDF reading software. Tablets, which usually detect their orientation and show you the text the right way up regardless of how you turn them, can be set not to do that. Google will tell you how to do it for your particular device.
  3. Read aloud. Again, this slows you down, and also highlights issues with your sentence structure, unintended verbal patterns which will distract your readers, sentences that are too long, and the need for more or different punctuation. Also, if you ever intend to have an audio version of your book, it needs to work in that medium. Reading it aloud is a good way to check whether it does.
    This won’t help you with homonym errors (words that sound the same), but it will help with missing words.
  4. Have someone else read it aloud, if you have someone who will do so.
  5. Have a device read it to you using text-to-speech. Windows 7+, Mac OS X, iOS 8, and Android since early versions have built-in text-to-speech (Google “text to speech” and the name of your operating system to find out how to enable this on each platform). There are also free applications for all the platforms which will do text-to-speech with varying degrees of usability and pleasantness. Paid apps exist too, of course, which may or may not be superior. Read some reviews and make your choice. I can’t provide a lot of guidance, since I haven’t used this approach myself, but if you often miss words out of sentences or make simple typos that can be detected by listening, it’s likely to help you.

Whatever tool you use for writing (Word, Google Docs, Scrivener) should have a built-in spellcheck. Pay attention to it. I’ve seen several published books, including at least one from a major publisher (coughHarperCollinscough), which included errors that a simple spellcheck should have caught.

Google Docs is also surprisingly good at spotting typos, probably using some of the knowledge built up by its search tool (“Did you mean to search for…?”). Still, only trust Google Docs’ advice if you’re sure it’s correct--it’s a reminder, not a tutor. (It also suggests “alright” for “all right,” which I, and the major style guides, still consider incorrect, though that fight will probably be lost in the long term.)

MS Word’s grammar checker is wrong far more often than it’s right. For example, shown the previous sentence, it incorrectly suggests “its” for “it’s”. Even when it’s right, it’s oriented to business writing, not fiction. It should be ignored with extreme prejudice.

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