The Persistence of Human Error

A copy editor is not someone who never makes mistakes, but one who diligently goes after the errors. Additionally she knows her limits, and learns which errors persist in her own awareness. I, for instance, regularly need to reassure myself of the correct usage of EFFECT and AFFECT. I may grasp it for a good long time, but more often than not I’ll quickly dial up the Merriam Webster’s app on my phone to check.

With features like spellcheck and autocorrect, I notice that my patterned spelling errors become invisible: when I reflect on what I have just typed, I miss the opportunity to see what I need to remind myself of. Typical spelling errors for me involve –ence or –ance (it’s insurance but independence). I always need to check these in my own writing. What are your usual bugaboos?

I used to think that a good craftsperson possesses outstanding technical skill (in addition to artistic inspiration). A great artisan seldom makes mistakes, right? But then I realized that what really sets apart a craftsperson is not whether he makes errors, but whether he sees them and remedies them. The difference lies between the artist who sees error and shrugs, and the artist who diligently returns to correct what he sees is not sitting right.

I know a woman who, though a consummate knitter, sometimes only recognizes an error many rows later and has to rip out stitches all the way back to that glitch to make the repair. Her partner has to excuse himself from the room during the unknitting, because he thinks it unbearable that all that time and work should go to waste. She, however, finds it unbearable for the error to persist.

Along with the realization that perfection is an abstract, unachievable state, comes the realization that an editor cannot really edit her own work. Fresh eyes are not only a blessing, but most often a necessity. There must be some study of cognition out of Harvard or other prestigious place reasoning why this happens, but regardless of the science, we all know (from sometimes embarrassing experience) that it’s true. In my coursework at Emmerson College, I was in a class of twenty-five editors and it was rare that we all arrived at the same answers for the same reasons.

There’s almost no escaping our fallible human selves. As contradictory or cross-purposed as that might seem, I find myself in awed gratitude of this truth.

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