Archives For Correction

Corrupted Poetry

July 28, 2014 — 14 Comments

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.