When an Error Goes to Press

Red and blue pencil
by Dawn Allcot

Famed freelance writer Debbie Ridpath Ohi (aka @InkyElbows on Twitter) recently tweeted: Only lazy writers assume “an editor/agent will fix it.” ALWAYS aim for your best work.

I agreed, posting that it’s not an editor’s job to clean up messy copy — a point I wrote about at my first post here at FWJ.

Laurie PK, @QuipsAndTips asked, politely, what is the editor’s job, then?

After a few tweets explaining, I think I nailed it with this response: “Writers owe it to themselves to turn in the best copy they can, so their editor can take it to the next level.”

But what happens when the writer turns in clean, grammatically-correct copy, only to have an error occur during the layout / proofreading phase – and go to press that way?

What action should you take?

First, understand mistakes happen. Editors have a lot on their plates – including cleaning up the grammar and typos from writers not as conscientious as ourselves. Yelling, screaming or sending scathing emails will not garner you any favor with the editor.

Take a deep breath. Rant to your writer friends. Vent on your blog – but do not insult the editor, graphic artists, copyeditors, proofreaders or anyone else involved with the publication. They might read your blog, and they may figure out you’re talking about their publication.

In the print world…

In a print publication, what’s done is done. If the mistake was a source’s name or a company name misspelled, let the editor know so he can print a correction. If it’s your own name, let him know so he’ll remember in the future. But if it’s a grammatical mistake or a typo, leave it be. Yes, even if it’s in the headline. There’s nothing they will do about it.

You’ll have to decide if you want to work for this publication in the future by asking yourself a few questions.

1. Is it the first infraction, or does the editor consistently make similar mistakes?
2. Is the error in your story the only mistake you noticed, or is the publication riddled with poor grammar, typos and inaccuracies?
3. Is it a market you absolutely love, where you write about a topic you’re passionate about?
4. How much do they pay?

About #4: I’m not going to give up writing for a publication that pays my car loan or a good chunk of my mortgage each month. That’s just being practical about it. In reality, though, these problems will be the exception – not the rule — in higher paying publications. If the answers to the first parts of questions 1 and 2 are “Yes,” you’ll probably want to continue writing for the magazine.

If you really like the magazine but fear future mistakes, you may ask if you can see a PDF of your article before it goes to print. The honus, then, is on you to catch any future typos. Take the responsibility seriously.

In the digital realm…

Digital publications give editors a chance to correct errors even after the publication has “gone to press” (so to speak.) If that’s the case, you do want to address the typo.

First – check your original draft and make absolutely sure the mistake was not yours. You can’t take an editor to task for not catching your mistake.

If your version was correct…

After you’ve calmed down, send a polite, professional email to your editor. (If it takes more than a few hours for you to get over this, you may want to consider anger management techniques, as well!) If you’re unsure if your email has the correct tone, let it sit in your drafts folder for a bit or ask a friend to read it. You want the error fixed quickly, but not at the expense of your relationship with the editor.

Let the editor know about the error, point out how the sentence should read, and ask if there’s any way it can be fixed. Keep the tone friendly. You might also compliment the current issue – but only if it’s heartfelt. Don’t flatter.

Finally, attach the original document, so the editor can see your original copy. Do not make any changes, because you don’t want the document to show that it’s been modified recently.

Once that’s done, move on. The editor will either change it, or he won’t. Get on with your next assignment. You have more important things to do than worry about it.

Comments

  1. I was once yelled at for a major error in a newspaper (I was the last set of eyes on the copy before it went to print). I later got an apology because they discovered it was the printer that somehow messed up.

  2. Tania Mara says:

    Thank you for the useful tips, Dawn!

    I can say I’m lucky, since I’ve never faced such a problem. So far, the editors I work for have never let a single mistake pass unnoticed. Yet, I’m going to bookmark this post, because I may need to reread your tips at some point in the future.

  3. As a contributing editor and writer, I want to thank you for this well-written, thoughtful and informative piece.

  4. Chinamatt-
    Been there, done that. Let’s just say I will never, ever mis-spell the word “calendar.” ;)

    Thank you, Daniella and Nicole. I appreciate it. :)

  5. Good post with important info. My issue recently was an ed./her bosses changing my well-thought out headline for an article. I found the new one insulting to my interview source – so much so that I sent her my original text. For me, it was about my integrity and trust as a writer.

    But you’re right about the digital pubs., I’ve been able to have the ed. change an error before “print.”

  6. I recently had a similar problem. The editor actually called me to clarify what I meant by a sentence and to make sure I didn’t mean to say something else in my article. When the magazine came out, he had changed it to say the thing I told him was incorrect. How frustrating! I’ve decided to let it go, but I will certainly keep an eye on his changes in the future to make sure it doesn’t become a habit.

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