Columns > Published on January 2nd, 2023

Typos: The Final Word

Typos are like bedbugs: they’re manageable, but they’re impossible to eradicate. Nobody likes them, but everybody encounters them at some point.

And both bedbugs and typos appear in books more often than we’d like to admit.

I vote we have this one, last discussion about typos, then we stop talking about them. They’re boring, they don’t hold the meaning so many of us think they do, and, like, who gives a shit?

The History of the Typo

The first typos were often “scribal errors.” Scribal errors go back to the days when books were copied by hand. Some guy looking at a book on his left and copying it by hand into a blank book on his right is, of course, going to do things like repeat words, omit words, misread something, or accidentally skip an entire line here and there.

If you don’t believe me, try it: copy this column, by hand. It’ll teach you a lot about what a terrible writer I am in addition to showing you how easy it is to screw this up.

Then we got the printing press and movable type, which didn't eliminate typos but DID mean we could make them a lot faster and more efficiently.

If you were a printer back in the day, what you’d do is take a whole shitload of letters, line them up in a wooden tray, and then use the tray of letters like a giant stamp, printing out the text on paper.

Did I mention that because this is a stamping process, all the metal letter stamps had to go in the tray backwards, so the letters are backwards AND the lines are backwards, moving right to left?

Not easy. You can see how there were still fuck-ups aplenty.

Digital word processing made correcting errors simpler, but catching them wasn’t any easier until the first spellchecker was introduced in 1971. However, digital spelling and grammar checks are still imperfect, and there's no shortage of people who feel that reliance on machines to check for errors has resulted in more problems than fixes.

Some Subspecies of Typos

When we talk about typos, we’re not always talking about the same thing.

There’s the fat-finger typo, which is exactly what it sounds like: when keys are close together on a keyboard, it's easy to hit a few extras. These are typos we should expect to INCREASE as more things are being written on smaller keyboards, yet our fingers are still the same unattractive, sausage-y shape. And sweaty. Yours are sweaty, too, right?

There’s the atomic typo, which happens when you put in the wrong word, but the wrong word is ALSO a word. Spellcheck won’t always catch these, especially if there’s a noun, like “can” that makes sense in the same context as “van.” “I got in the can” and “I got in the van” probably won’t be caught by a spelling and grammar check.

Autocorrect also does a number on your words if you’re not careful. If you use odd words, or maybe have a friend with an unusual name, you know all about this shit. My prediction is that these typos will increase for a time, but at some point machine learning will get better.

Why Typos Are Hard to Catch

Yr brn s vry smrt. It can fill in a lot of text.

Yr brn s vry smrt. It can fill in a lot of text.

Most moderate-to-advanced readers don’t actually see each letter and figure out the word they’re looking at, define it, then move to the next word. Instead, their brains use context clues to fill in the gap, and as long as the words flowing are within the realm of expected words, you keep on truckin'.

Reading is like walking up a set of stairs. Next time you go up the stairs, pay attention. You probably look 4 or 5 steps ahead as opposed to straight down at the step you're on. You walk up in a smooth, fluid motion, treating the stairs as a set, a unit, as opposed to treating each individual stair as its own task to complete. 

Reading is the same. You're looking a little bit ahead, in a way, as opposed to treating each word as its own thing.

Normally this is good. It lets you read faster, and it makes books more immersive.

When you’re editing, a well-trained reading brain works against you. It fills in gaps for you, even if the gaps are what you're trying to catch. And, unfortunately, people who write and edit tend to also read quite a bit and have pretty strong reading brains.

The Typo That Should Make Us All Feel Better

Imagine a book with a typo so horrendous that the book comes to be known only for that typo.

That’s the case with the so-called “Wicked” Bible.

Due to a typo in the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” the “not” was omitted. Which means a typo caused a Bible to be printed that said you not only CAN sleep around, THOU SHALT.

I’m lounging in a glass house in glass underpants that barely conceal my shame when it comes to typos, but God telling everyone to go ahead and sleep around with married folks is like Mitch Albom writing a book that accidentally endorses doing whippets as a way of coping with the bittersweet feeling that comes with the end of human life.

Things That Aren’t Typos

Alright, let’s get into the meat of the way that typos have been misread and given too much meaning, starting with some things that reviewers will call typos that really aren’t typos.

100% perfection in a manuscript is not the expectation for books coming out of the Big 5 Publishers.

If an author uses the incorrect form of “our/are” in a book ONCE, that’s a typo. But if an author continually uses the incorrect form, that’s a usage error, a piece of information the author does not know. 

If an author continually misspells words, words that should be caught by autocorrect, that is not a typo, that’s failure to use available tools.

Writing like, “I should of gone to the store,” is not an example of a typo, it’s incorrect grammar/usage.

Incorrect punctuation is generally not a typo, although I’ll count forgetting to use a question mark for a question as a typo.

A repeated problem is usually not a typo.

One-off issues ARE often typos, even if there are a lot of them, so long as the issues are different each time.

So, if you’re fixing to write a review that says a book has “a lot of typos,” make sure YOU’RE correct. If the book has multiple different one-off errors, that book could be said to have a lot of typos. If the book has a mistake or type of mistake repeated, (and this is usually what people complain about) that’s not really a typo.

How Common Are Typos In Big Publishing?

Numbers on this vary quite a bit, but the short answer is that MOST, if not all, published books will have a typo or two when they go to print.

100% perfection in a manuscript is not the expectation for books coming out of the Big 5 Publishers.

Which is meaningful because big publishing represents the maximum effort, combining humans and machines, that we’ve ever spent on ensuring a book has no fuckups. The best tools are being used, the largest number of people are seeing books, and still, they’re imperfect.

How Common Are Typos In Self Publishing?

More common than in Big Publishing, obviously.

The manuscript a self-published author sets as “finished” may be as good, or better, than the “finished” manuscript submitted to a major publisher by a well-known author. The problem is, a self-published author is done with the book at that stage, where a book that goes through a major publisher will have several subsequent readings, professional layout folks who often notice errors, and often have a run of Advanced Reader Copies, which provide another chance to hear about typos.

Why Don’t Self-Published Writers Just Hire Editors?

I’ll throw back the curtain: I’ve got 24 self-published titles available. I will make just under $100 on them this year, and this is probably my best earnings year.

A copy editor will cost you in the neighborhood of $1,000 for one book-length work. That person will not give you story edits or anything like that, they’ll purely check for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors—and remember, there's no guarantee that your manuscript will be perfect when they're done.

I don't have $24,000 dollars. Even if I wanted to spend the money, even if I had a prayer of earning a significant portion of it back, I don't have the cash up front.

All this, like a candle shoved in a brined cucumber, illuminates the pickle: Maybe that $1,000 is an investment. Maybe if I invested in copy editing, I’d sell more copies. But…I kinda doubt I'd sell enough copies to break even. 

While I don't think I deserve to make a boatload of money in self-publishing a book about, oh, I don't know, a group of people who try to do a bikini car wash to save an arcade from evil condo developers, suggesting I spend $1,000 on an editor is a pretty big ask on your part.

How Typos Are Used To Bash Self-Published Books Incorrectly

I never, EVER hear about typos in books that come out of big publishers. And this is not because those typos don’t exist, they absolutely do.

It’s because typos are one of the things reviewers and readers like to highlight in self-published books.

It's totally backwards. Shouldn't big publishing be held to a higher standard of quality than self-publishing?

And, wait a minute, flawless self-pub books are never given an extra star on Goodreads for being error-free. “This book was boring and dumb, but there were zero errors, so 3 stars!”

It’s like…did you ever have a college professor who made you write long-ass papers, like 10 pages, and then when you had a single comma splice, your otherwise perfect paper, carefully considered, thousands of words, earned you a 93/100? Didn’t that seem cosmically unfair, that your one punctuation problem was viewed as 7% of the work that went into the paper?

If You Can’t Handle Typos

Let’s take a hard right turn and talk about the difference between eating at your mom’s house and eating at a fancy restaurant.

The fancy restaurant should make pretty damn good food. You’re paying a lot for it, they have the knowledge and resources. If they bring you an overcooked steak, it’s okay to send it back. What you're paying for is the quality. 

Your mom doesn’t have an entire fridge full of filets. And your mom isn’t getting paid for dinner. In fact, she put out the money for the food in the first place. This is a money-losing proposition for her.

We should embrace the typo. It’s a sign of humanity.

If you can’t eat at your mom’s house unless the steak is perfectly cooked, then you can’t eat at your mom’s house. Take your mom out to the nice restaurant instead. My god, the woman deserves a nice meal now and then.

If you can't read self-published books without harping on typos, then you can't read self-published books. Unless you can learn to be a better, more generous reader.

Being a generous reader means you should read self-pub books a little more like you would review your mom’s cooking: it’s a labor of love, the resources are far less, and holding your mom to professional kitchen standards is setting yourself up for disappointment. And, let's face it, it's you being kind of an asshole.

Why Is The Existence of Typos a Good Thing?

It’s only a matter of time until AI or Big-Data-powered programs can completely eliminate typos, but I don’t think this is a good thing.

LitReactor was all over this shit back in 2017, and the tl;dr version is that programs like MS Word have great tools for something like a resume, a cover letter, something where flawless execution is more important than voice or story or big ideas or passion or general vibes. But when it comes to creativity, Microsoft's suggestions hammer all the voice-y-ness out of any piece.

It’s not always one or the other, have something perfectly-executed or have something interesting, but it seems more likely than not that a decade of this developing technology will result in more homogenized stories, more voices sounding the same. We’ll lose authentic voices in favor of things that are more “correct.”

We should embrace the typo. It’s a sign of humanity. It’s a sign that we’re still individuals. It’s a demonstration that making art and storytelling aren’t just about producing shiny product, they’re about people expressing something.

The typo is the little flaw in the finish on the bookcase your grandpa made for you. It's the one slightly crooked tooth in your partner's smile. It's the small, burnt way of saying something that tells me this book was written by someone, a real human. It's the speed bump that reminds me that this book in my hands is a look into someone else's world, something that was created on purpose and mashed down into a reasonable shape for my enjoyment.

It's humanness onn the page.

Get A World Without "Whom": The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age by Emily J. Favilla at Bookshop or Amazon 

Get Lapsing Into a Comma : A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print--and How to Avoid Them by Bill Walsh at Bookshop or Amazon 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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