You Poor Mother

“You poor mother,” the female character said. I stopped reading. Wait a minute. Was she calling the young man, who had just told her that his mother was comatose, a “mother” in the most derogatory sense of the word?

This was supposedly a caring young woman. Something wasn’t right. I went back and read the line again. Oh! It was supposed to read, “Your poor mother.” Of course. And therein lies the need for careful editing, even if you have to read your manuscript a dozen times, read it until the words swim and you hate it. Read it until you know it’s right.

One of the criticisms of self-published books is sloppy editing. But we can’t confine those observations to independent writers alone. I recently read the latest novel of a very well-known and admired mystery writer. She has a top level publisher and consistently hits the best seller list. Yet her latest book had errors that were too obvious to miss–wrong words, dropped letters, twisted timeline.

At a book fair in our area, I shared a table with a fellow author and I complimented her on her latest novel. She laughed and said, “Did you notice anything wrong?” I hadn’t, but she told me she’d changed the color of a main character’s car, describing it blue in one scene and green in the other. We talked then about how easy it is to overlook errors.

Sometimes we simply know the material so well that our mind supplies the correct word or phrasing. Sometimes we have read through so many times we can no longer concentrate. Sometimes our proofreading programs supply the wrong word–I’ve laughed until I cried over some of the auto-text correction errors people have posted. And, sometimes, we just have a mental block that causes us to consistently use the wrong punctuation or the wrong word (a friend didn’t call me the “comma queen” for nothing).

Do minor errors detract from the characters, the plot, the theme? Not usually, but they often confuse or irritate the reader.

In my nonfiction, true-crime book, I paid scant attention to the chapter titles once I set up the table of contents. Since it was a book involving two murders, two trials, and two executions, the chapter titles included dates. During the last proof (after discovering on previous proofs various oddities including two lines that, for some inexplicable reason, were in a different font), I realized that, according to my chapter titles, my protagonist went to trial a year after he was executed. It was just a typo, but still . . ..

Would anyone really notice and be thrown by the chapter title error, I wondered? Maybe not, but the one or two people who did notice might question the veracity of my other facts as well–or think I was just careless.

I was saved by FRIENDS, people who believed in my work enough to read it . . . and read it again . . . and again. One used a Microsoft program to add, delete, and suggest. The other read an early copy of the actual print book and made pencil notations. Their time and attention to detail was invaluable.

My best advice? Treasure your early readers, find a good copy editor, and read that manuscript just once more.

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