I’ve made a few mistakes recently. Apologies have been, and continue to be, expressed for all of these.
The problem with making a mistake in print is that it can’t be taken back – it’s not the internet where you can try and erase it, it’s not a conversation where you can play it down. A mistake in print is a writer’s eternal reminder of their own fallibility; or to paraphrase Faber in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the printed word does for the writer what the Praetorian Guard did for Caesar – constantly whispering “thou art mortal” in his ear.
Often being my own worst enemy, I’ve made more than a few mistakes in my writing career. There was the time I got my first exclusive on a local newspaper – six local primary schools were faced with closure! For some reason, my brain then swapped the name of a threatened school with the name of an unthreatened one. Woe ensued.
I also informed my readership that a local railway viaduct had not been built by railway pioneer George Stevenson but instead had been erected by Robert Louis Stephenson, the author of Treasure Island (this particular one apparently held the record for the number of complaint letters ever received).
Making mistakes is inevitable for all but the most retentive writers, particularly when you’re producing factual pieces. I’ve spotted and corrected three writing this post alone. And it never gets easier – no-one likes to admit they’re wrong and each one of these mistakes was like a punch in the gut, lingering long after apologies had been made.
“Everyone makes mistakes” is the usual slogan most people trot out when you’re busy banging your head against the nearest hard object, and it’s true. Everyone does. There are ways and means of minimising the risk, but it’s how you deal with that little aphorism that is important.
So what should a writer do when the written word turns round to bite them?
1. Don’t try and gloss over it – apologise immediately
If the mistake has happened and it’s your fault, apologise straight away. Nothing comes across worse than trying to blame others for your own errors. IN PARTICULAR don’t blame sub-editors – they didn’t write the copy in the first place and can only deal with what’s in front of them. Also, don’t offer trite excuses. If you didn’t double check your work, then that’s your fault so take it on the chin and say sorry straight away.
2. Accept it’s going to sting for a bit
Don’t get angry and lash out at the complainant, as this merely makes you look petty. Unless you’re made of steel or don’t give a ****, it’s probably going to bug you a bit but it’s important not to let it undermine your confidence (see points 3 and 4).
3. Deal with it and move on
If you can, offer a complete written correction in the next issue immediately. If you write it, don’t succumb to the temptation to be sarcastic or to play it down. Swallow your pride and say sorry. You may be able to turn a positive into a negative – correct a mistake in one issue by offering to write a positive piece with a good angle for the next; editors get good copy and this can sometimes abrogate the need for a written correction. Above all else, accept that these things happen, try and understand where you went wrong, then move on.
4. Try and make sure it doesn’t happen again
Copy checking is a vital skill if you’re a freelancer, so find out how the mistake got in. A LOT of people can be ‘typo blind’, unable to spot an obvious error because they’ve read the same sentence over and over again. So, if you’re lucky enough to have someone who’ll do it, get another person to read it through. It helps if they know a bit about the subject.
If not, make sure you leave enough time so that you can walk away from it. Focus on something else for a while, then come back with fresh eyes and you’ll be surprised how many clangers you spot.
Don’t be afraid to go back to an editor and correct something you’ve spotted after submitting your piece, but make sure you do it quickly. Better a bit after deadline but right than on deadline and wrong.
And it’s vital that you don’t let this get to you. If you do, then your confidence will crumble and even more mistakes will flood into your panicking brain.
Mistakes will always happen, but it’s up to you to minimise the risks.