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Saturday 20 October 2018

Writing - elusive errors

Having just finished reading Vanity Fair, I was fascinated by the observations of the editor of my 1983 Penguin version. Besides providing helpful notes at the end of the novel, J.I.M. Stewart offered an entertaining and enlightening introduction.

This may be of interest – or, indeed, may offer some amusement – to writers (as well as readers!)

Thackeray wrote the book in serial form, which was quite normal for the times – the 1800s. Often, the author may have been writing one installment while the previous episode was being published, a veritable production line with tight deadlines. This did, however, present problems.

As Stewart observed, ‘strange inadvertences were sometimes its consequence. Characters change their Christian names and even their surnames as the book goes on; they turn up at impossible times in impossible places; they even turn up alive after being dead.’ (Vanity Fair, p9)

Naturally, most of these discrepancies can be corrected when the serial book is collected into a novel for subsequent publication. Thackeray revised his novel’s text in 1853, addressing inconsistencies of place and time and other errors.

It’s worth noting that even modern classics persist in containing errors. Henry James’s The Ambassadors was published in 1903 with two chapters in reverse order, and the error remained undetected until 1950! My copy of To Kill A Mockingbird was a reprint dated 1997; and it had been reprinted no less than 42 times in this paperback format. There are easily thirty typing errors in the text – even one on the first page – yet no publisher considered correcting them in all those years. A shameful way to treat a modern classic; it looks as though later editions have been re-scrutinised, thankfully.

Self-edit until you’re satisfied, then hope the publisher’s editor will spot anything you’ve missed. But don’t expect the finished published product to be without error. Sadly, some errors prove to be very elusive indeed. But take heart, you're not alone...


Neil A. Waring said...

Interesting - I occasionally find spelling errors or time and place inconsistencies, but not often. Great post.

Nik Morton said...

Thanks, Neil! Do share, if you wish... :)