Beware Exasperated Kidneys: Can You Spell-Check Disaster?

Some years back, there was an incident in the Boston Police Department‘s boot camp. In an attempt to be as tough as any Marine Corps drill instructor, the BPD instructor in charge of recruits forced a group of newbies to stay at hard exercise during one of the hottest days of the summer, without rest, food or water.

One of the recruits died when his kidneys failed. He had an undetected pre-existing condition. Dehydration proved fatal. This was a tragedy and a scandal.

The Boston Herald is one of the city’s two leading papers. The Globe is now owned by the New York Times and wants to be taken seriously. They have excellent writers and often the most thorough and unbiased coverage of important news. The Herald is a tabloid with a really great sports section. Intellectuality be damned, if you follow the teams, you read the Herald. Besides, the Globe is ridiculously expensive on Sundays.

So, back to the story. As it unfolded, the Herald pointed out that the young man who had died was already afflicted with kidney problems which were exasperated by being forced to go without water, food or rest in extremely hot weather.

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I looked up from the paper and said to Garry, “This poor fellow suffered from exasperated kidneys. I can hear them now … (in a kidney voice) ‘That’s IT, I’ve HAD it, I’m OUTTA here …’ ”

The dreaded spell-checker had struck again. The word had been exacerbated but the spell-checker didn’t know the word, so … the young man died of exasperated kidneys. What a pity. And so young, too.

There’s a moral to this story and that is (I hope) obvious and relevant to all of us who write or blog. Don’t depend on spell-checkers. They are helpful, but they are not intelligent. They are only nominally better than auto-correct … and we all know about that!

Spell-checkers don’t get context. Or style. You may want to say “my own” rather than simply “my.” The spell-checker will argue the point until you want to put your fist through the screen.

Proofreading is a big problem for all self-published writers, including bloggers. I’m tempted to give up on text and publish only pictures without captions. Even a headline could prove fatal. I am the typo queen. Worse, I hold the cut and paste error championship. When moving text, I can count on leaving something behind or taking something away that ought to have been left behind. It’s frustrating, it’s embarrassing and occasionally  funny … but not in a good way.

If I took everything to heart, I would have long since given up blogging. I do not have someone dedicated to proofreading and/or editing my copy. There are two reasons for this:

  1. No one wants to do it. They have other things to do (What? Something is more important than me? How could that be? Aren’t I the center of the universe?)
  2. No one I know is any better at proofreading than I am. I know this because I self-published a book. It was read and re-read by all my friends and family members and there are dozens of typos remaining.

Authors are generally lousy proofreaders of their own work. Sometimes, we are lousy proofreaders, period. As authors, we see what we meant, not necessarily what’s really on the page. It has nothing to do with sloppiness or not caring. Writing and proofreading are different skill sets. Hemingway didn’t have to do his own proofreading, nor did Thomas Wolfe. If they’d had to proof and edit their own copy without the excellent support of their publisher and Maxwell Perkins, they would never have made it into print. Nor would many of today’s most popular authors like Tom Clancy make it to print. Clancy, by his own admission is a very poor editor and proofreader … and in many people’s opinions, not a great writer, either, but I digress.

In the past few decades, editors and proofreaders have been mostly eliminated as too costly. Authors are expected to present press-ready manuscripts. Unless you are one of a publisher’s big money-making authors, there’s a very high likelihood that no one will read your manuscript before sending it for publication.  The result has been visibly lower quality manuscripts. You see it in printed books and even more on e-books. The official position of publishers is nobody cares. But readers do care.

Who doesn’t care? Publishers don’t care. Readers don’t get a say in the matter. If we want to read, we learn to cope with and compensate for text errors. The absence of proofreaders and editors is part of cross-industry cost-cutting and bottom-lining. The idea is to keep eliminating support services until there are no more services to cut … and then be thunderstruck that your product has suffered.

I spend hours going over my posts and I still miss stuff. It’s infuriating and embarrassing, but no one has time or inclination to read everything I write. It’s my blog and my responsibility. Not everyone has someone to backstop blog posts. My choice has been to write shorter — and fewer — posts. Fewer words, fewer mistakes. As it is, I spend more time proofing than writing. Ten minutes to write the post, 2 hours or more to proofread. There aren’t enough hours in my day.

If this means people won’t read my stuff because I’m a crappy proofreader, then I throw my hands into the air and say fine, whatever. I agree punctuation and spelling count, but so does content. If punctuation and spelling are the only things that count, something is wrong with the reader, not just the writer.

But what about spell-checkers? Surely they will catch the typographical errors!

Yes and no. Remember exasperated kidneys? Spell-checkers will find words that are misspelled and occasionally a few words used incorrectly. Spell-checkers will never find words that are spelled correctly but should not be there (cut and paste errors). They will “decide” what you wrote should be something else — witness exasperated instead of exacerbated — because the word you used isn’t in their database. Spell-checkers only catch misspellings. They won’t catch a missing word, a wrong word, an extra word. If you let them, they will change your text to mean something quite different.

There’s no convenient, simple answer. In the end, we do the best we can with whatever resources are available.  If perfection is going to be a requirement for blogging, most of us would give up. Perfection will never be achieved by anyone. Or at least, not by me.

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Categories: Blogging, Humor, Media, Publishing, Words, Writing

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5 replies

  1. Thank you, Thank YOU! I learned most of framer ( grammar, lol, auto-fix), spelling, word usage and sentence structure from writers. I owe them.
    I did use a pocket dictionary with each book I read. I began about age 12, at my small branch library reading Taylor Caldwell. I fell in love with American history. Then Gene Roddenberry (sp?) expanded my imagination, on to Ayn Rand. So many authors and writers educated, entertained and kept me with hope.
    Please as a writer never stop writing. I don’t need you to write or spell everything properly but I do need story tellers to keep writing.
    P.S. over the years I met a few of my admired writers. Not always a good idea for a fan. So now I admire the words written and respect the writer. I shared that only because you write as if you and your Garry will understand.

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    • I never studied formal grammar. Nobody my age did unless they went to a private school because public schools discontinued teaching grammar and my teachers didn’t know how to parse a sentence. I picked it up by reading and by ear, watching news reports where they used proper grammar. Eventually, you can hear the difference between right and wrong. You pick up more words by reading and the Kindle is great for this because you can get the meaning for any word you see by just highlighting it. And of course, like you, I owe a debt to all the authors I read over the years!

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  2. This warrants retelling of an ancient anecdote from my TV News days. I always kept a dictionary and a Bible among several other books on my desk in the Newsroom. One day, working on a script, I flipped open the dictionary, searched, double-checked and flipped it closed. A “talent” colleague walked by, asked WHY I used this dictionary. I explained. He looked puzzled and then said — “..but this is television..”. He walked away. I stared at him for a long moment.

    Like

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