Text can shift . . . part 1

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” — Voltaire

As a professional writer and editor, my work is out in the open for everyone to see. Either in print or online, my job is to create content for others to read. And though I strive for perfection in everything I produce, I am far from perfect . . . and the mistakes I make are out in the open for all to see.

As a writer, I accept this. But the kick in the head is that no matter how hard I try  — proofreading backward and forward, fact checking, checking sources, etc — simple, preventable errors still occur. When it comes to writing and editing for publication, it seems that effort is irrelevant.

Perhaps we should change Voltaire’s words to “perfection is the enemy of the self.”

Reasons for errors include relying on old knowledge; making assumptions; narrowly focusing on one thing and missing what’s next to it. Errors that are obvious to others can be invisible to us, no matter how hard we try to spot them.

According to Joseph T. Hallinan — author of the book Why We Make Mistakes — we humans have design flaws that set us up for mistakes. The same qualities that make us efficient also make us error prone. We learn to move rapidly through the world, quickly recognizing patterns, but overlooking details. “We are subconsciously biased, quick to judge by appearances and overconfident in our own abilities.” (1)

The book describes a study by a group of Mayo Clinic physicians who reviewed old chest x-rays of patients who later developed lung cancer. The radiologists who had initially checked the scans had found them to be normal, but the team re-examining the scans saw that 90 percent of the tumors had actually been clearly visible.  This is an example of the very human mistake of “looked but didn’t see.” (2)

Hallinan even made a mistake on his web site; a reader pointed out a dropped word in a sentence. “I didn’t notice it, my editor’s didn’t notice it, and nobody else looking at the website noticed it, but one reader in Ohio did. The reason this one reader succeeded where others failed is that he is a slow reader and reads word by word, rather than scanning the pages.” (1)

So I guess the take home is that your brain is not your friend and mistakes are inevitable. Now, I have long suspected this about the brain (and that’s a subject for another blog), but it’s difficult to accept the inevitability of errors.

1. Morris S. “Oops we did it again: why we make mistakes. The Independent. March 16, 2009. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/oops-we-did-it-again–why-we-make-mistakes-1645571.html
2. Hallinan J. Why We Make Mistakes. Broadway. Reprint edition (February 9, 2010).

Next week, we’ll take a look at ways to prevent editing and copyediting errors.

5 Responses to “Text can shift . . . part 1”

  1. Trace says:


  2. A reader says:

    So true-hard to believe that we can be wrong. Most of us would rather know that we made a mistake instead of going forward with no idea. The challenge is not take it as criticism. That is yet another enemy of the self.

  3. A reader says:

    Did you see the error in my comment-damn the iPhone torpedoes!!