Last week several Facebook posts about author Naomi Wolf’s interview on BBC had my writer’s heart missing a beat and a whirl of thoughts spinning through my head: OMG! How awful for her. I’m so relieved it wasn’t me. How could that happen? How come no one caught it?
I’m not going to do a post-mortem on what Naomi did or didn’t do. You can read the myriad of articles about it on the Net. What I wanted to draw attention to was what chilled my spine even more than the thought that it could be me—the paragraph in the attached article where Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the book’s publisher in the U.S., told the New York Times that while it
“employs professional editors, copyeditors and proofreaders for each book project, we rely ultimately on authors for the integrity of their research and fact-checking.”
The reality is, Naomi’s nightmare could easily happen to any one of us.
I believe, however, that not all errors are created equal and understanding why we make errors helps us minimize them.
I have a hard time calling lack of research, lack of fact checking, lack of all levels of editing “an error”, except in terms perhaps of judgement. Every writer (and publisher) should strive to present as perfect an error-free manuscript as possible.
That said, errors do happen even when we’ve been as careful as we can.
The most obvious and most frequent errors are what you might call technical errors: typos, format errors, omissions. Despite numerous pairs of eyes, and excellent proofreaders they can still happen—and do.
Some can be funny: In Ruth’s book Living Underground, she noticed that the room she was describing had scones (not sconces) on either side of the fireplace.
Some are embarrassing, like the project I worked on at the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities that went through at least 4 levels of proofing, but when it went to the Minister’s office for final approval, someone there pointed out that we had spelled university wrong in the artwork that was repeated throughout!
And some typos, as we well know, can change the meaning of what we write, as my favourite example here shows:
In this modern communication age, it is easy to rely on the most popular pages on the internet for research. The golden rule of research, however, is to get as close to source and prime documents as possible. By all means begin your research on the net, but sooner or later, try to use source documents, experts, diaries, photos etc. And understand that Google doesn’t list results based on authenticity and truth. Learn how to choose reliable sites.
Much like the lyrics we sing incorrectly believing all the while that they are correct, we all have other “quirks” that surface every now and then. For years I wrote that one thing “jived” perfectly with another. It should, of course, have been “jibed”, but my mind had a mental picture of two people dancing a fast intricate dance and “jive” made perfect sense to me.
Similarly, memory plays a cruel joke here. We “remember” the “facts” so clearly that when someone with the shared experience corrects us, we are genuinely astounded (and usually highly defensive). My family have always talked of a certain great-grandmother Emma Thomas. One of my hobbies is genealogy and in my documented research, it turns out she was Emma Williamson. (I still don’t think they believe me.)
Entrenched misunderstandings also come from cultural teachings: the same opinions or viewpoints passed down through generations until they become “fact.” I hardly need remind you of the age-old green and orange feud in Ireland or more recently the historical events that have come to light through increased interest in the Indigenous view of our country.
Dangerous Senses Errors
“The dominant sense of any word lies uppermost in our minds. Wherever we meet the word, our natural impulse will be to give it that sense. When this operation results in nonsense, of course, we see our mistake and try over again. But if it makes tolerable sense, our tendency is to go merrily on. We are often deceived. In an old author the word may mean something different. I call such senses dangerous senses because they lure us into misreadings.”
This is the kind of error that Naomi Wolf fell victim to. In her book Outrages she refers to dozens of men being executed for sodomy in Victorian London. She based this on research that showed that men accused of sodomy (a capital offense) had been given a sentence of “death recorded”.
Interviewer Matthew Sweet pointed out that beginning in 1823, a sentence of “death recorded” meant that the judge was abstaining from voicing a sentence of capital punishment in cases where he anticipated a royal pardon would have been be forthcoming if a proper death sentence were issued. So in short, “death recorded” meant “pardoned” (the opposite of what Naomi believed.)
Many on social media have been quick to ask why she didn’t look up “death recorded”. But be honest now—would you have? This is a perfect example of what C.S. Lewis was talking about. She was researching individuals accused of a capital offense. The sentence written in the records said “death recorded”. The dominant sense of those words is that “a notation of a death was made”. I think I would have made the same assumption Naomi did.
So how can you prevent, or at least minimize these different kinds of errors? Be aware. Understand where and why errors arise, and look for next week’s blog for practical suggestions.