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Musing: Making Less, Er, Fewer Mistakes
Emotions got the better of me last week. I committed an egregious error with my musing. I promise to focus on making less mistakes. Er, fewer mistakes.
What went wrong
I’m not referring to the stunning book sales statistics. Those came from well-respected industry expert Jane Friedman. As more data came to light, I updated the post with new statistics which paint a better, though still dismal, perspective of the ability of the big publishers to identify what books will sell. Famous authors and celebrities will always move copies, but predicting who the next star will be is clearly difficult—just more so than I would have thought.
So, no, I don’t have regrets about that topic. The light-hearted tale I had originally drafted can run in a future week, so setting it aside for a passion project was the right move. With limited time to switch directions, though, I scrambled to produce the new essay. With just minutes to spare, I hit publish and leaned back, knowing criticism would come my way.
I wasn’t disappointed. It didn’t take long before the first response hit, though, to my surprise, it wasn’t about the statistics:
Excuse me, but I think you should have said “fewer” rather than “less than a dozen.”
Argh! Did I really do that?
Yes, right there in the title. I used the colloquial phrase “less than” with a quantifiable noun, when I should have used the more correct phrase “fewer than a dozen.”
And in the title card—the featured image shared with the post. And I didn’t stop there. I committed the foul eight separate times in the article itself.
Egads. I can’t believe I made that mistake. On the bright side, the initial responses were polite.
It’s fewer, not less. Get it right!
Yes, as social media goes, the comments became decidedly less polite. At least they weren’t rude. Until…
The negativity doesn’t bother me. When you put yourself out there, criticisms will come. It’s the way things work.
What bothered me was that the comments were correct. I was wrong.
I scrambled to correct my error. Changed the title. Changed the title card. Corrected the error all eight times in the body. Updated social media.
Importance of editors
This error, though, highlights the importance of editors. My novels go through three layers of editors, a painstaking process, but one I’m always grateful for. I’ve learned many things from it.
My inclination to add a comma whenever it feels right amused a line editor who called it “creative.” She also always finds places I leave them out.
Despite three separate editor reviews plus several advanced readers, not to mention my reading of the manuscript dozens of times, readers found a missing word in Liars’ Table. Once seen, it can’t be unseen. How did we all miss that?
It’s only somewhat comforting to know that even the most heavily edited books will inevitably have an unintentional error buried in the manuscript. The rule of thumb is a single mistake for every 10,000 words. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that statistic, but I find errors in novels no matter how big the name of the author or the expertise of their publisher. Catching every single mistake in 100,000 words is virtually impossible, no matter how many eyes are on it.
For clarity, I’m not claiming this is an editor error or even an acceptable error. Making a grammar mistake in a title of a 2,000 word essay and then repeating that mistake eight more times in the same article isn’t close to the 1 in 10,000 standard. No, that levels up to….
Remember that Greek word -kakos I explained in my most recent Spectacular Vernacular? It means bad and derives from the even more ancient word kaka, a nearly universal word in any language referring to the primary reason an infant’s diaper needs changing.
So, no, I’m not making excuses. Instead, I’m praising the incredible value of editors. I would love to have them involved in the Monday Musing. That, of course, would require that I write the Musing, which is published on Sunday evenings, before, oh, Sunday evening.
Yes, I was always that kid in school who would remember the night before that I had a book report due the next day, so I’d better start reading the book.
Some of you are probably wondering about using automated editing tools. Great question! I use ProWritingAid and long ago purchased a lifetime subscription. I run it on 99% of my posts before they go live.
No tool is perfect, of course, and that includes PWA. It highlights potential issues, but the writer is still responsible for evaluating the suggestions. I can, and do, overrule its suggestions when appropriate.
So is this one of those cases? Did I overrule PWA? Or did PWA just miss this issue altogether?
I can absolutely vouch that PWA did not highlight that “less than a dozen” was grammatically incorrect. And why not?
Remember when I said I run PWA 99% of the time? Last week’s Musing was part of the 1%.
In my haste to bring the story live, I never used PWA. I wish I had, because when I tested, it reported back “incorrect quantifier with countable noun” and suggested “fewer.”
So this one falls under user error, not software error. As IT people say, it was PICNIC—problem in chair, not in computer.
Now, with all that groveling done, let’s address a critical point. Grammar rules are more guidelines than absolute law, and less than versus fewer than is a classic example. Notice that I said earlier that I used the colloquial phrase “less than”, not the absolutely incorrect form. Even sources like Merriam-Webster point out that things are not as black and white on this topic as it sounds. “Less than” is commonly used with quantifiable nouns and has been for a very long time. Even your grocery store probably has a sign for the 10 items or less line.
It’s just a prime exhibit of the fluid nature of language.
Another is the announcement last week by Merriam-Webster that they had added 370 new words to their dictionary. As always, some new entries raise questions about why they hadn’t been there before. Friends have been joking for years about the ability to MacGyver a repair with whatever resources were available and we’ve become painfully familiar with subvariants thanks to our events of the last couple of years.
Other new words, however, feel janky even if my attempt to use them is adorkable. People howl such words aren’t real and shouldn’t be in the dictionary.
But language evolves. A dictionary’s job isn’t to decide what is and isn’t proper, but to reflect language as it’s being used. A word that comes into common usage and that is expected to remain that way should be added.
Likewise, grammar rules evolve as well. Style guides exist to help us communicate, but there isn’t a single source. Most newspapers, for example, use the Associated Press Stylebook, but novelists more commonly use the Chicago Manual of Style.
Intentionally breaking the rules
And to make things more interesting, authors sometimes intentionally break the rules. We assemble a style sheet for our editors that highlights the differences between our desired approach and the appropriate style guide. For example, CMOS 8.112 says, in part, “Words such as army and navy are lowercase when standing alone, when used collectively in plural, or when not part of an official title.” But my style guide capitalizes those words when referring to the US military, even when used alone. For example, an army might advance on the battlefield, but if John is a veteran of the Army, I capitalize it.
Why? Because I have a large contingent of veterans and military families as readers. They are accustomed to seeing those words capitalized because the military style guides do so. My goal as a writer is to keep my reader in the story, so I don’t want to do things that throw my readers out of the story… even if a style guide might disagree.
Which brings us full circle back to last week’s mistake. I could make an argument that “less than” is commonly used and therefore is acceptable, but it misses the point. My post last week was bound to be read by many in the writing field and, for those people, using a colloquial phrase, particularly in the title, threw them out of the story. In fact, I suspect a certain percentage of them never got past the title.
Thus, it’s my mistake. And thank you for those of you who wrote to let me know. Well, except for the #[email protected]!% person.
So you have my promise. I will focus on improving my published version of each week’s Musing, even without the support of my editors. I suspect it will be a challenge, but I promise to make less mistakes.
I mean, fewer mistakes.
P.S. – And, yes, I fully expect at least one mistake exists in this musing. Oops.
Gratuitous Dog Picture: Roscoe’s eyes
In case you think editors apply pressure, just try to resist Roscoe’s gentle reminder that the rain has stopped, the sun is out, and we really should go for a nice, long walk rather than sit in my study. Don’t worry. We walked.
On The Website This Week
Vocabulary Word of the Week: Kakistocracy
August survey results: Pumpkin Spice: Love It Or Leave It?
Want to participate in the September survey? Which monster scares you the most?
Remember. If you aren’t making mistakes, you probably aren’t taking enough risks. Go try something adventurous. See you next Monday.
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