Fear of Error

Before the holidays, I wrote a brief post commenting on something Stan Carey had written in the Macmillan Dictionary blog about adopting a forgiving attitude towards mistakes. I concluded that post by saying that “Better writing will come not from the fear of error but from the appreciation of the power of great prose.” Although I now wish I had been a bit less pompous, that is an accurate reflection of how I feel. At least it is what I tell others they should feel. But I had an interesting moment of further reflection recently that made me wonder how well I practice what I preach. I was reading the Facebook comments on a Huffington Post article. Early on in the comments, someone pointed out two ‘errors’ in Lisa Belkin’s article (a misused hyphen and case of improper capitalization). Belkin graciously acknowledged both errors, thanked the person who had caught them, and tried to shift the conversation back to the topic at hand. But the allure of discussing editorial fallibility was too great. People began piling on and soon someone asked whether HuffPo was without editors (you can imagine the tone in which that question was asked). To her great credit, Belkin pointed out that they do indeed have editors and that they also have hundreds of extra editors, a system that worked pretty effectively in this case. Mistakes were made, mistakes were identified (by those elusive fresh eyes that editing demands and that are in such short supply), mistakes were eliminated. A happy ending, unless you believe that someone somewhere dies a little bit every time a mistake is seen by the public.

I was so impressed by the sanity of this response. Rather than wishing nobody had ever seen her mistakes, she was glad that someone caught them. I wish I could adopt such a sanguine attitude about the possibility of error in my own writing. I have to keep reminding myself that errors aren’t ultimately what matters; reception and engagement are what matters. If we are read by lots of people, there is more chance that our words will have an impact and more chance that those people will come back to us with interesting and challenging reactions. And there is more chance that at least one smarty pants will come along and happily point out our mistakes. In this vein, I love reading the New York Times’ After Deadline blog in which an editor discusses all the stuff that got past their editorial staff. I’m always amazed by how much their editorial staff care about all this and by the fact that this impressive commitment in no way prevents them from missing all sorts of problems. I think devoting a blog to the acknowledgement, correction, and dissection of those errors is a great way to handle them. This sort of treatment shows that mistakes are inevitable, fixable, and often very interesting.

I was hoping that this post was going to be about the use of commas in restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, but that just didn’t happen. Maybe next week will be more conducive to thinking deeply about commas!

8 responses to “Fear of Error

  1. Comma post in a coma? It’s OK – this post has good points.

  2. ‘mistakes are inevitable, fixable, and often very interesting’

    I heartily agree. Lisa Belkin’s attitude, as you describe it, does her credit, and the After Deadline blog is excellent for the reasons you say. Unfortunately, such professional level-headedness and humility can seem the exception in a climate of fanatical fault-finding and peevish one-upmanship.

    Looking forward to your post on commas and clauses!

  3. Guilty as charged! As a former newspaper court reporter and closet editor I, too, read newspapers with an editing pencil in hand and relish pointing out errors in convenient e-mailings. Traditionally in the rag game, editors were paid a premium for making reporters look good, or at least better than they’d be without one. A good reporter knows this, but it only works if the editor knows his/her stuff.
    It isn’t about misplaced commas or stray hyphens as much as it’s about clarity and readability. Simplifyiing — often saying the same thing with fewer words — is what makes a good editor. I once asked a fellow reporter what she meant in an ambiguous (obviously unedited) paragraph and was told ‘readers will know what I meant’ YIKES!!!
    Another time an editor who covered court for me wrote a run-on sentence in which the reader got the impression the judge had ordered alcohol counselling for the lawyer of the accused! (Hint. Keep sentences short and properly modified!)
    Still, it’s fun to point out, as I did recently, that “heresay” evidence is not the same as hearsay.Or did the reporter mean heresy? You can see the possible confusion.

  4. I am currently a teaching assistant at UMD, and I find this post refreshing. I am teaching a blended learning section of English 101, meaning we meet only once a week and the other time is made up of online posts.
    Given the limited amount of time I get to spend with the students, which is further limited by the lecture time, I get only a brief period to talk to them about any writing they’ve done. Thus far I haven’t even had the opportunity, but when the time comes I would rather not get hung up on grammatical errors. I think that correcting those mistakes can leave the student feeling like their paper only needs minor tweaks to be perfect.
    I think the lax stance on errors and the focus on positive writing is a good idea. Writing should be grammatically correct in an academic setting, but issues of grammar should not be demonized. I think that early on in drafts people forget that intelligent content is what matters most.

    • You make a great point, David. The emphasis on error not only makes people feel unnecessarily bad about their writing, it can also distort their sense of what the problem actually is. It’s a delicate balance: we want writers to feel good about their writing while also recognizing that improving said writing will involve a lot of intellectual effort! Thanks for commenting.

  5. Warmly-put and thoroughly reassuring advice. Thank you.

  6. Pingback: Grammar | Pearltrees

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