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Monday, February 28, 2011

Learning to Abandon Shame in the Age of Typos

[Note: this long post has very little to do with beer. Forgive me.]

As is usual, I flipped through the hard copy of my new book with new eyes Friday evening. Those were the clear eyes of someone who now sees vividly all the typos and mistakes it is now too late to fix. Example: "Their" where it should be "there"; "recently" where it should be "recent"; a sentence garbled by an incomplete rewrite featuring consecutive, dueling verbs ("writes describes"). Uggh.

It got me thinking.

Technology has a way of altering landscapes. Theatrical productions were essentially static until moving pictures. The drama depended on language. Movies introduced the concept of visual storytelling. One of the more interesting technological shifts is the way the Sopranos altered the way television is used to tell stories. Seasons now function like segments in very long movies. The depth and complexity of a show like The Wire exceeds anything that's appeared in movie form.

The internet has changed the landscape of communication, upending the traditional hierarchy. Those who controlled production and distribution once dictated both what content got released and acceptable standards. This changed instantly with the arrival of free services like Blogger and Twitter. I worked in the old age, when journalists were media and everyone else was an amateur. The distinction is lost; with access to distribution, anyone who hangs out a shingle becomes a content-provider. Yet while the nature of content has changed, there's the matter of acceptable standards.

One of my favorite bloggers is Matt Yglesias, who writes about politics at ThinkProgress. Matt's still in his twenties and came of age as a writer in the era of free distribution. He was blogging when he was still in college (and getting national attention). His thinking is complex, quirky, and unexpected, and his prose is often sly and knowing. Example:
If you’re trying to look at America from a balance-sheet perspective the problem is very clear. It’s not “entitlements” and it’s not “Social Security” and it’s not “Medicare” and it’s not “health care costs” it’s the existence of old people. Old people, generally speaking, don’t produce anything of economic value. They sit around, retired, consuming goods and services and produce nothing but the occasional turn at babysitting. The optimal economic growth policy isn’t to slash Social Security or Medicare benefits, it’s to euthanize 70 year-olds and harvest their organs for auction. With that in place, you could cut taxes and massively ramp-up investments in physical infrastructure, early childhood education, and be on easy street.
(Matt's joking; by pointing out the "drain" of the unworking elderly, he illuminates the ways in which government and business differ.)

Even though he's young, Matt's a nationally-recognized author, paid to blog and write books and articles and participate in prestigious think tanks. And his blog is riddled with typos. Much like my own blog and book, he has agreement issues, tense problems, and sentences that were incompletely reworked. Sometimes he just misspells things.

I have always been fascinated by this, because many official organizations have measures to prevent this kind of thing. You certainly wouldn't see that problem on Hendrik Hertzberg's blog at the New Yorker (though Rick has quoted Matt--including in his most recent post). Like John Foyston at the Oregonian, whose posts must travel to New Jersey before publication, there's an invisible layer of editorial oversight happening between the composition of a blog post and the depression of the "publish post" button.

In an earlier era, the presence of typos would be a signifier. It would tell the reader: this is shoddy work you should distrust. Mostly the reader would blame the writer (despite the fact that excising typos takes hours and a separate pair of eyes), but by extension, this tarnishes the reputation of the publication. The New Yorker still prints little end pieces mocking mistakes made in other papers and magazines.

Yglesias, a card-carrying member of the intellectual elite, has been born in a later age. He's used to seeing prose with error and is not distracted by it. There are far more obvious cues about the quality of writing--the depth of thought, the originality, the subtlety of metaphor, the clarity, the wit. If a typo slides by his eye--when a typo slides by his eye--he remains untroubled. His generation is free from a morality that feels shame in the presence of a misplaced apostrophe.

Mine isn't, and I apologize for the typos in the book. (Which, plug plug, you should go buy.) It requires more of a reader to see a writer's intent when the prose is unkempt like mine, but perhaps I can develop some of Matt's sanguinity about the whole thing.


  1. Is there a financial reason for you to prefer we buy this in physical form as opposed to electronically? Better margin?

    Not that having a physical text is a bad thing; but as one just completing an undergrad degree during a time of 'professorus elephantitus readinglisti' and having suffered an addiction to Powells for far too many years, I am now facing the distinct edict from my normally compassionate wife of 'get rid of these *%@# books'. And thus, the process has started to a conversion to digital media...

  2. There is a very good reason to eliminate typos — they distract the reader from the point the writer is trying to mae.

  3. Dann, I'll see if I can get a digital copy together.

    Barm, magnificent.

  4. "Movies introduced the concept of visual storytelling." Theater was static? I guess I don't understand how you come to this conclusion. Theater has been around for thousands of years and it has been far from static for a long time. What TV and movies allow is easy distribution. What's the difference between Hamlet performed on stage and a movie of Hamlet in a movie theater?

  5. Barm makes a very good pint.

    Frankly, I'm ok if someone makes the odd accidental typo (god knows I make a lot, myself) but I'm not really going to spend time reading something that even the writer doesn't want to spend time on.

  6. Shawn, I was getting at the way visuals tell stories. Movies introduced the concept of putting two scenes together that had no apparent connection, but which, when viewed on screen, had the appearance of continuity. An example is a scene in which two characters are embracing on the balcony of a hotel room at night, and the next scene is the same couple in bed in daylight. We get what happened, but there was no content provided.

    That was a conceptual revolution.

    Flagon, you're an old man, brother. I'm with you, but beware, the ground is shifting underneath our feet.

  7. Jeff, so you're saying playwrights have never put disparate scenes together? Not in theater, nor opera, nor Noh, nor anything? I believe that you're wrong in this.

  8. I had two rules in the world of print journalism -

    1. Never touch a newspaper after it goes to press. Nothing good can ever come of it. You'll find mistakes that you "should have" caught. But there's nothing you can do now. So don't pick the damn thing up.

    2. Embrace corrections. Fact is, nobody's perfect, and the more you try, the more you'll mess up. So when someone points out something you screwed up, thank them for helping you get it right on the second try. (In your case, for the second edition).

    In other words - don't sweat it.

  9. Nick, aye. When I first started, the main lesson impressed upon me was: "make sure you spell their names right." Even that wasn't iron-clad.

    Of course theater contains visual cues. But theater is a medium of words, not images. There are ways of telling stories visually that aren't possible on the stage. (And, while it's possible to film stage productions, these continue to contain the characteristics of theater.) It's possible to advance narratives on film without characters. The use of visual metaphors. The simulacrum of reality and the distortion of visual imagery--all of these things have produced a medium distinct from theater.

  10. I'm not an expert in theater and I don't want to speak for Jeff, but from what he's saying, I think the nature of film allowed for certain extensions and innovations that have since been fed back into theater. So while I'm sure some theatrical productions arranged disparate scenes together, I don't think they did so to an extent that film did. Film's breakthroughs in "Montage" were certainly more extensive than anything seen in theater at the time. You also started to see more empirical data being collected due to the nature of film (for example, the Kuleshov effect). And so on.

    Re: the original point of this post, I think the typos are much more acceptable in blogs than they are in any sort of printed medium. Indeed, we even forgive problems with thought and speculation. The reason for this is that we value the immediacy and spontaneity of a blog, especially when it comes to something like politics. This isn't to say that a more considered or longer, more thoughtful piece isn't appreciated either, and I think the printed word certainly maintains an important place in society, but the value of a blog is that it isn't set in stone or entirely trustworthy. Making a mistake in a post is almost a good thing - it gives you a good starting place for another post!

  11. @Jeff I asked primarily as there seems to be a 'download now' option already under Lulu for a downloadable pdf for $5. In fact, as of 0830 this morning, I can say with certainty that your book looks fantastic on my iPad as a pdf. :-)

    So, to followup with my other query, if this in any way shortchanges you, I'll buy you a beer anytime at Rogue or Bier One in Newport if you holler when you come through town.

  12. Dann, no--that's perfect. Thanks!

    (I will accept free beer anytime, however.)

  13. Jeff, when the I first started on The Beer Here, I did indeed have lotsa editorial oversight of the nervous kind...these days, there are barely enough bodies to properly copyedit the print stuff, so I'm free to hit the post button with nobody looking over my shoulder. So perhaps the output that you attribute to layers of editors is better laid at laziness's feet, but I wanted you to know the facts of the matter...
    like you, I take a lot of pride in writing as well as -- in my case -- 25 years of experience as a professional writer allows, and spelling're right, nothing clanks like a mispelled word or a clunky phrase and afte a couple, I'm ready for for a pint and something different to read...Beervana, of course, is notable among blogsfor the author's attention to detail and often felicitous nturn of phrase...congratulations on the book!

  14. As one who has spent a lot of time working in the digital journalism media - online only - the great thing about typos is they are fixable! If you notice them after the publish button is hit (or approved by the editor), you edit and fix it. If someone points it out to you via comment or email, you thank them and fix it. As far as digital media goes I have never understood this issue of not fixing typos - that's one of the beauties of online publishing. Be it a blog, online newspaper, whatever - it's all fixable.

    Now, I say all of that, and still get upset when I read a book from a publisher like Random House with an obvious typo. Drives me insane. Of course, I don't blame the's the publisher. They have people who get paid to make sure those things don't happen. :)