Like a lot of writers, I hate to look at my material once it’s gone into print. When I do, a typo inevitably jumps off the page and slaps me in the face. It’s not because my pieces are riddled with typos, necessarily, but because there’s some magical force in the universe that draws me to open a new book to a page where a typo happens to be lurking. If there’s even just one single typo in a book, I somehow manage to open the book to that exact page, and my eyes will drift down to that exact spot. And as soon as I see it, the euphoria I’m experiencing over a new publication explodes like a burst from a confetti cannon. I get a little sick to my stomach, even.
I have long ago reconciled myself to the fact that I’m a poor proofreader of my own work. Proofreading and copyediting are distinct skills that require training and practice and aptitude—and my aptitudes happen to lie elsewhere. To compensate, I build in processes and procedures and, ideally, redundancies. This has been particularly true with the Emerging Civil War Series, where we have continually pushed to improve our proofreading protocols. (Read more about that here.)
When one gets by me, it hurts. A few have been so bad they’ve haunted me for years. For instance, my first Civil War book, The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson, had a “forward” instead of a “foreword.” It mortified me so badly I wanted to buy up the whole print run and call for a do-over. Another haunter appears in Strike Them a Blow: Battle Along the North Anna River. I had just swapped a couple emails with historian Joan Waugh and then proceeded to write a caption that referred to Civil War sketch artist Alfred “Waugh” (instead of “Waud”). Ugh.
I can’t not look, though. After all these years of writing, I still feel a thrill when I see my name in print. I am glad I’ve not lost that sense of giddy excitement. But as a result, I can’t resist taking a peek when I get a box of books or the latest issue of a magazine that includes an article I’ve written. I know a typo lurks in there somewhere, and I fear it.
I happen to be agonizing over this at the moment because I was just looking at an article I wrote for the current issue of Hallowed Ground. In the article, I list July 21 as the date Grant finished the draft of his memoirs, which he actually finished on July 20. Argh! (In real life, that actually came out sounding a little more like “@!%#*#&@#!!!!!!!!”)
A typo like that particular one is especially embarrassing because I’m allegedly a subject matter expert on Grant’s dying days and the writing of his memoirs. Unlike a misspelled word or transposed letters, an error in fact isn’t just frustrating—it undercuts my credibility.
I wrote to the editor, Mary Koik, to apologize for my blunder, certain that she’d get some letters from people about it. I also know from experience that people don’t feel the need to be polite about such nastygrams, either, and I didn’t want Mary to get blindsided.
Fortunately, Mary is superbly gracious, and her reply set me a little more at ease. “If Grant finished on the 20th, I’m sure he noticed a typo on the 21st!” she wrote. “That’s why I, too, hate to look at anything after it’s gone to print.”
Ironically, in those last days, as he was dying of throat cancer, Grant had dozens of things competing for his attention as he tried to finish his book. (For more details, read this post from 2015, “Grant: “I should change Spotts if I was able, and could improve N. Anna and Cold Harbor,” which the Hallowed Ground article is based on.) By that point, he had an army of eyes looking over his work to help him.
Good proofreading is a constant battle—one I always feel like I’m losing. And while not all readers are forgiving, I’m fortunate that most readers are.