Now That’s a Fire

People love to point out other people’s mistakes. Sometimes this is done with an encouraging word and a gentle smile. More often, it’s done less kindly, and is perhaps accompanied by a pointed finger and raucous laughter (try tripping over a rug at a cocktail party sometime). Whatever the case, people generally feel a smug mixture of superiority and relief (Thank God that wasn’t me!) when someone else screws up.

As a copy editor, I get paid to find other people’s mistakes. Diving into a manuscript and locating errors, seeing one red mark become two, five, ten, beyond count as the pages flip by, brings undeniable satisfaction. With every new mark, I experience a little charge.

There are worse ways to make a living.

Earlier today I came across a piece of publisher copy for a book I will not name. In the copy, a fire was described as raging through a residence, rendering the house “inhabitable.” That’s one hell of a helpful fire!

I laughed, mentally pointing—and it was damned funny—but a part of me wanted to give that anonymous copy writer a friendly pat on the back and say, “Hey, we’ve all been there.”

I suppose most people are protective of others in their professions, and the stark truth is that mistakes happen, even to the best of us.

Once a mistake has been identified, it’s easy to circle it and isolate it and say, “How could you miss this? How could this happen?” The person saying this is usually not an editor but someone who, having found a goof, immediately believes himself or herself capable of having caught all the other thousands of mistakes in a document. (A point to be discussed at another time is that somehow the ability to read confers on nearly everyone the belief that that person is a writer or editor.)

Unfortunately, even the best editors miss something from time to time, especially when someone is overworked, or not 100 percent healthy, or subject to all manner of distractions that can occur in an office.

So, yes, mistakes happen. But as copy editors, we have to move forward and learn from these mistakes, adjust our processes if doing so can prevent similar mistakes in the future, and rededicate ourselves to achieving a perfection we can at least aim for, if not attain.

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