Trying to write it right
On August 10 at 7:35 a.m. I hit the “download” button of a program called “MyBook” and 77 files for my due-out-in-October book, Cascade Summer: My Adventure on Oregon’s Pacific Crest Trail, took flight to a printer in North Dakota.
Words. Photos. Maps. Graphics. The works. The moment ushered in a feeling of anticipation, relief and, of course, panic. What if I’d allowed mistakes to get through? Other than a final look at the hard-copy blueprints, it was too late now.
For you, the reader, the expectation — as well it should be — is that a book is mistake-free. And as the writer, you want the same. But it’s impossible. American Nightingale went through three Simon & Schuster editors and once it was out we still discovered a handful of errors.
And with a self-published book, as Cascade Summer is, you don’t have the benefit of professional editors.
So, what do you do?
Farm it out to as many people as you can. By the time I sent Cascade Summer it had been read 16 times — six times by me, twice by three people and once by six people. And the night before I sent it, inDesign’s spell-check still found 21 misspelled words. That doesn’t mean my editors weren’t good. On the contrary, people caught literally hundreds of mistakes: facts, misspellings, punctuation, usage, style — you name it.
It means that a 253-page book oozes with the potential for errors — and writers and editors are human.
Consider this: the best major league hitters succeed fewer than four times in 10 at-bats. If my 85,000-word book had 50 mistakes — and that’s a lot — my batting average would still be .999.
Not that that’s going to cut it with the reader who sees you wrote “flair” when you meant “flare.” I understand that. And nobody wants 50 mistakes in his book. So you pass it around and say to your editors: show me the errors of my ways. And they do.
My sister-in-law, Ann Petersen, whose husband Glenn hiked Oregon’s Pacific Crest Trail with me, could work for any New York publishing firm. She’s that good. Same with Dean Rea, a former UO journalism professor of mine. (Who would remind me now that, because this was my first reference to UO, I should have spelled it out.)
She and Dean found about 200 “fixes” on their first passes through the book and probably another 100 on their second.
As an author, you hate that—and love it. Hate that so much got by, love that someone caught it.
Think about it: it’s not only that every one of those 85,000 words has to be right, but each one must be right on a number of levels: spelled right, punctuated right, “styled” right (in some cases, italic, in some cases all-caps, etc.), be the right size (11-point for Cascade Summer body type) and be placed in the right position on the page (flush left? flush right? centered?) It must be the best word possible to fit the meaning of that particular sentence. And, finally and most importantly, it must be accurate.
So, if each of the 85,000 words has seven such variables, that’s a potential of 595,000 — more than half a million — possibilities for failure.
On American Nightingale, a researcher and I spent six hours one day going through every fact in the book to ascertain each was correct. Some mistakes still got through.
Fact-checking is the literary equivalent of doing plumbing in a crawl space. Critical, but no fun. No glamour. And, frankly, there’s this subtle temptation to rationalize — to think the reader won’t know the difference between “coveralls” and “overalls” and won’t care whether Cultus Lake was to our east or to our west on the PCT. But readers do care.
After three decades in journalism, I try to remember that it’s not good enough if ninety-nine percent of your readers won’t catch a slight error; one percent will and that’s one percent too many.
That said, writing a book is like raising children. (Whoops, Dean Rea would suggest that that’s the wrong word; “you raise corn; you rear children.”) They’re never really ready to go off to college or otherwise leave the house. But at some point — whether it’s with kids or books — you have to hit the send button. And hope for the best.