Corrupted Poetry

proofreadersA sloppy proofreader can ruin the most praiseworthy writing. (Just ask Mark Twain.)

If you’ve ever seen something you wrote poorly edited—or including introduced errors—you know personally just how criminal this is.

My choice of adjectives reveals that these tragedies are nearly always mistakes, and not malevolent. Despite that fact, they disrupt the flow and impugn the skill of truly good writers.

I was thinking about this subject today after running across the following passage during my research of the American Civil War. An 1861 newspaper lifted the following from an issue of the Boston Courier.

The Errors of the Press—“Really,” said a printer, in conversing with a literary man about errors of the press, “gentlemen should not place such unlimited confidence in the eyesight of our hard worked and half-blinded reader of proofs; for I am ashamed to say that we utterly ruined one poet through a ludicrous misprint.”

“Indeed! and what was the unhappy line?”

“Why, sir, the poet intended to say:

     ‘See the pale martyr in a sheet of fire;’

instead of which we made him say:

     ‘See the pale martyr with his shirt on fire.’”

The critics were down fierce on the poet; but we don’t see why. A man “with his shirt on fire” must be a highly poetical object, as his life would be in imminent danger.—Boston Courier.

I can easily picture the exhausted proofreader unintentionally substituting a burning garment for a consuming inferno. It made sense to him. And, since he was unlikely to have an ear tuned to poetic imagery, the practical reference to ignited clothing must be what the poet actually meant.

This reminds me that it’s impossible to have too many eyes cast upon the final draft of a work before it goes to print. Take care of your friends and family who offer you the gift of proofreading; their talents deserve to be appreciated and rewarded.

Mark Twain’s Thoughts on the Subject

Samuel Clemens got his own start in the newspaper business and knew firsthand how challenging proofreading was. However, that did not prevent him from venting about the poor proofreading of his novel More Tramps Abroad.

The following was written to his publishers in regard to the printer’s shortcomings. The 1897 letter clearly reveals Twain’s colorful (and occasionally vulgar) writing.

I give it up. These printers pay no attention to my punctuation. Nine-tenths of the labor & vexation put upon me by [them] consists in annihilating their ignorant & purposeless punctuation & restoring my own.

This latest batch [also has] my punctuation ignored & their insanities substituted for it. I have read two pages of it—I can’t stand any more. If they will restore my punctuation themselves & then send the purified pages to me I will read it for errors of grammar & construction—that is enough to require of another who writes as legible a hand as I do, & who knows more about punctuation in two minutes than any damned bastard of a proof-reader can learn in two centuries.

Conceive of this tumble-bug interesting himself in my punctuation—which is none of his business & with which he has nothing to do—& then instead of correcting mis-spelling, which is in his degraded line, striking a mark under the word & silently confessing that he doesn’t know what the hell to do with it!

The following year he wrote a mellower review of the work of the proofreader. Not in the heat of correcting a muddled manuscript, he was able to comment on the benefits afforded by good proofreading.

You think you are reading proof, whereas you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes & vacancies but you don’t know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along.

Sometimes—but not often enough—the printer’s proof-reader saves you–& offends you—with this cold sign in the margin: (?) & you search the passage & find that the insulter is right—it doesn’t say what you thought it did: the gas-fixtures are there, but you didn’t light the jets.

I must say that I have been rescued by my proofreaders far more frequently than I have been abused by them. May God grant you the same blessing.

16 thoughts on “Corrupted Poetry

  1. Wonder what Twain would have thought of the “editing” going on with his books now, especially Huckleberry Finn and its bowdlerization. I would dearly love to hear the choice words he’d employ in response!

  2. What a perfect explanation of why writers cannot effectively proof their own work: “you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes & vacancies but you don’t know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along.” My weakness is leaving out the very small words — of, in, on, to — and yet still saying them to myself as I reread my drafts. So frustrating not to be able to see one’s mistakes.

    So, I think editors and proofreaders are invaluable allies to the writer. Most the time. ;-)

    1. Quite true. I never rely on myself as the final proofreader for something I’m submitting for publication. However, I do sometimes rush my Mere Inklings posts, and an error or two slip through.

  3. A farming website once picked up a blog post of mine and (with my permission) featured it on their website. It was entitled “How Can We Bear to Eat Our Own Animals?” Imagine my chagrin when I checked it out and discovered they had “corrected” my “misspelling” to “How Can We Bare to Eat Our Own Animals?” To me that called up horrendous visions of naked people capering around the fields devouring animals raw! Assuming any of the readers were more astute than the editors, I was the one who looked like a fool, as formcritic says. I contacted them, and they fixed it; I think I was polite about it! :) But when I sent an article off to our cattle association journal, I assured the editor that I proofread assiduously and to please check with me before she published the article if she found any “corrections.”

    1. Hilarious! I don’t even know what to say about an “editor” who would be so presumptuous–and ignorant–as to make such an obvious mistake. Consider yourself in good company though, with masters like Twain.

  4. “shirt on fire” Now that is a funny one.
    Tumble-bug is great, too….better than what we called those beetles you see in the cow pastures…they are also early warning signals to “not step here”
    Always good to hold a kind thought for proofreaders!

  5. Pingback: Beavers Beware « Mere Inkling

  6. Pingback: Peculiarities of Punctuation « Mere Inkling Press

  7. Pingback: On the Nature of Digressions « Mere Inkling Press

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