In print, there is nothing you can do about it. Online, it used to be that you had a window of opportunity to make a correction, but now, with fast-acting search engines and social media buttons, that window is very small. As soon as someone hits the facebook, twitter, tweetmeme, stumbleupon, care2 or digg button, your horribly awkward headline is set in stone, so to speak.
In fact, you don’t even have to hit a button with facebook now. As soon as a real person visits the page, if that page contains a facebook like or share button, a facebook crawler comes sniffing around and once it does, the headline is locked in.
Writers who self-publish, and editors who vet and publish the work of others need to be very careful, because our reputation is on the line every time we hit that “Publish” button.
There are two main types of errors I want to talk about today – the misspelling, and the wrong word choice that looks like a misspelling, such as “affect” and “effect,” or “then” and “than.”
Seeing A Misspelling
I have two ways to find spelling errors. The first way makes errors jump out at me and the second is thorough proofreading. There are two completely different processes at work, in these two methods. People who don’t understand proofreading (like many writers) think you can skim and scan your way to good copy. I say that in my experience, most people can’t do that, and if you try, you will fail.
Scanning as Proofreading
A few years ago, a Captain in Iraq sent a story to NewsBlaze. Around that time, we were publishing five to ten military stories every day, when almost nobody else was. This particular story was quite long, close to 1000 words, I think, and I saw it within a few seconds of it hitting my mailbox. I found 4 errors in the story and I wrote back to say we published it, but fixed the four errors, so the captain could send an update in case any other newspaper wanted to publish it. The Captain was stunned because he and five others proofread the story.
There were two problems with their “reading” their story. First, and most importantly, they were too close to the story. They may have contributed to it and so they only scanned it. They may have been in overload mode, having read it too many times already. Second, it is unlikely any of the six were proofreaders, because a real proofreader should have found the errors.
Scanning is not proofreading – it is scanning. The best you can hope for is that a misspelling will disrupt your scan and you will zoom in on it and fix the problem.
I can scan, but I am not a scanner who can get much useful information from the process. When I scan, it is only because I’m not proofreading and I’m in a hurry. My only aim, when scanning, is to see if something obvious jumps out at me. I use it when I don’t want to read a story, but I want to see if there is anything obvious that needs to be fixed. If I am tired, I scan and usually, I recognize that and I do something else or try to wake up!
The only way I have ever found to see errors in spelling and grammar, is to actually read the words, one at a time, and understand what is being written about. This is slow work, but it works for me.
I can read a sentence aloud or say it in my head, as though I was speaking it. When I do that, I can find and fix most problems. I can be confused, though, when writers give me a horribly run-on sentence that stretches across many lines. These massive sentences have to be broken into parts, not just for my reading, but do readers can understand them.
Wrong Word Choice
The way for a writer to (almost) always get the right word is first to understand the meaning of the word you are using, and second, to actually speak it, in the headline, either out loud or silently.
Once you understand the words thoroughly, you should never get them wrong, as long as you are concentrating on the task at hand. Until then, you need to know the words you have problems with, and pay extra attention to them. Of course, that usually depends on someone telling you, at least once, that you got it wrong, so you can fix it.
There are also typing errors. If you’re not concentrating on what you are doing, your fingers may type something you didn’t mean to. I have seen writers who write “than” when it should be “then” and I know that quite often now, my fingers write “teh” instead of “the.”
So please be careful when you write, especially the headline, and try to fix your own errors by proofreading, not by scanning. Don’t always rely on your editor, because they may miss something or their correction may not convey the point you were trying to make. Either way, it can reflect badly on both of you and the publication too.