Copy That

mcafee 0819
Lacking the photojournalistic enterprise to go to the post office and take my own photo, I present you with a photo of the Times’ photo. In a fine twist, note the Stingray reference at the top of the page.

I made a typo once. (Once, and never since.)

The typo itself wasn’t so much, but trying to get me to see it became such a huge ordeal that it sticks in my mind to this day, and it is brought to mind this morning because while I haven’t read too many things so far today, everything I’m reading is littered with typos.

I was working at the Gunnison Country Times, as I did for more than 10 years. As the sports editor and school reporter, I went about my work fairly autonomously, with little supervision (other than the reading public, of course). Especially once we got computers that did the typesetting for the women in the back room, no one at the paper was putting eyes on my work until they sat down to read the paper, same as subscribers all over town.

Wenona Warren was our front desk person, although that so unfairly encapsulates someone who should have a published biography. (Daughter of a mine foreman in Crested Butte, one of four female chemistry majors at Western Then State who used to break into campus buildings to study, the only female aerial photographer in the country . . . I could go on, and someday perhaps I shall.)

One day, after the paper came out, I came into her work area and she held out my sports section. “What’s wrong with this headline?” she asked.  I looked at it (and by now I only remember the key word, so I’m making the rest of this up): Stingrays Win in Salida. “Stingrays Win in Salida,” I said. “No,” Wenona said. “Try again.”

I looked again, more carefully this time. “Stingrays Win in Salida,” I said. “No,” Wenona said. “Try harder.”

I peered closely at each word. It still said Stingrays Win in Salida. Finally, Wenona had to literally spell it out for me. “S-T-R –” It turns out, there is only one R in Stingrays, not two. Stingrays, not Stringrays.

Even with lots of prompting, I couldn’t see the R for all the letters, because in my mind I knew it was supposed to say “Stingrays,” so every time I looked at it, that’s what it said. Which is why no one should proofread their own work: you know what you want it to say, so that’s what you read.

In this world of instant production, though, I think the large majority of us are doing our own proofreading, and this is the reason for the abundance of typos one encounters, even in publications such as the Posts, Denver and Washington. The age of the copy editor appears to have gone by the wayside.

While I do try to read through my blog entries before I post them, I invariably find at least one typo after I have hit the “publish” button. I was re-reading an entry the other day and noticed I had a date as “1985” when it needed to be at least 100 years earlier to make any sense.

I do correct as I go back, because I’m sure posterity would want that of me, but in the world of newspapers, that’s not as likely to happen. (I do sometimes read an electronic article or column in the Washington Post that notes a correction has been made to the original text, although these are less about typos than changing mistakes in people’s titles or quotes.)

So the recourse for the Gunnison Country Times next week, should it feel so inclined, would be to offer a clarification to its sub-headline on the page 1 story on the recycling center (technically not a typo, just suggestive of wrong information): “Only corrugated cardboard accepted.”

This suggests the only commodity the center is now accepting is corrugated cardboard, but after reading the entire article, I’ve decided the recycling center will still take plastics, glass, tin and aluminum cans, but in the cardboard realm, nothing flat and probably no brown paper (like bags and packing paper) — actually, never mind, that’s not a typo at all, but rather a fairly poorly-written story by the editor himself. Someone should have checked his work.

But then I got to a feature story (from the previous week) about an artist who painted a mural in the Gunnison Post Office in 1940. The author of the article describes the mural, of which the main feature is a herd of cattle, as including “panhandlers.” Again, I suppose this is less a typographic error than the use of the wrong word, because although the country was just coming out a depression, the mural offers (and I only see one, not multiples) a miner panning for gold out of the river, not anyone begging for food or money.

And I would have given the young reporter a pass, although she frequently reaches for the wrong word, but then she discusses the painter studying under the “tootledge” of another artist. Surely, even if the youngster (who is probably the same age I was when I worked at the Times), isn’t under the “tootledge” of her editor, spellchecker would have caught that one.

The line in that story that gave me the largest laugh was hardly the fault of the reporter, who reported that the mural artist married a man whose name was Elmer Page Turner. Who would do that to a child? At least he probably always kept his wife on the edge of her seat.

Then I moved on to something on-line, recommended by Mozilla, about how a woman in New York declutters her apartment by giving things away for free on Craigslist. I enjoyed the piece, and again, it’s not a typo as much as it’s an incorrect ordering of phrases, but she gave away a juicer she “hadn’t used — much less looked at” when she really wanted to give away a juicer she hadn’t looked at, much less used.

My friend and former editor Evan used to have a quote above his desk that I don’t remember exactly, but it said something about people’s largest urge being that of editing other people’s work. That’s certainly the case with me. Some days, when we hit a critical mass of writing errors before 7 a.m., the urge is greater than others.

But then I think back to my “Stringrays” days, and I really ought to think back to composition of this entry, where hopefully I caught all nine million typos I made, and I perhaps ought to be more humble and more forgiving of my fellow writers’ errors. I then I blow right past that into sanctimony: Where did all the copy editors go?

The internet is failing my illustrative purposes today. No images of Ms. McAfee’s painting, and I really wanted to end with a Bloom County cartoon (I have a copy in a box somewhere in my new garage) where Milo, at the Bloom County Picayune, fields a call from Mrs. Billsby, who tells him they’ve made a typo and printed that she’s died. Milo tells her they don’t make mistakes on the obituary page and suggests she get to some good light and read it slowly to him. “Billsby slashes four, dies in cocaine brawl,” she reads. “Oh,” Milo says, “That’s the front page.” It’s funnier when Berkeley Breathed does it.

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