Typos in the pre-digital age. Or, why proofing your work matters then … AND now.

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Think back to a high school or college writing assignment. Term paper, book report … anything, really. Did you get dinged for typos? (Shorthand for typographical errors, in case you were wondering.) Does a particularly egregious error come to mind?

Allow me to get this conversation going, with an embarrassingly cringe-worthy example out of my own not-so-recent past.

Imagine a senior feature writing class in college, circa mid-1980s. Students had to mimeograph (a gold star for anyone who remember what this machine is/does) copies of their work to share with classmates, which was then read aloud.

One time I waited till the very last minute to write the story. (Well, it wasn’t my first instance of procrastination. But it was the latest, time-wise.) Rushing to get finished typing on my old IBM® Selectric typewriter – surprise, surprise – I did not take the time to proof my work before rushing off to mimeograph copies.

Whew! I actually finished making the copies and was able to get to the course on time. The class was small, no more than 10 budding writers. Finally, my turn came. I passed the mimeographed sheets to the teacher and other students, and stood to read. Everything went well until I came to a particular passage, which should have read:

Once they agreed to pursue a particular course of action, all plans were written into the bylaws.

Instead, this is what I read … aloud (caps for emphasis):

Once they agreed to pursue a particular course of action, ASS plans were written into the bylaws.

Yup! Read out loud, to my peers and professor. I recall pausing in abject horror as I realized what I had (or had not) done, and then stumbling through to the end of the article. Then everyone, including the teacher, had a good laugh; I remember pretending to laugh, the better to hide my mortification.

I actually got an A-minus on the assignment, the “minus” added for – you guessed it – neglecting to proof my work. Ever since, I’ve been positively compulsive about two interrelated actions: proofreading my writing, and setting aside the necessary time to do so. The experience was instructive in bringing home that:

  1. The quality of what you write in terms of grammar and usage matters just as much as content.
  2. In the real business world, editorial do-overs won’t count – even when you can correct your work after the fact on the internet.

And that brings us back to the beginning: what did you do in the face of your own typo horror story? Put it out of your mind, or internalize it with the thought of weeding out grammatical errors forever? Don’t be shy … please share in the comments section below!

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