Now don’t get me wrong: I love love love the fact that there are people who read my blog who can correct me on such things, and I certainly don’t begrudge someone pointing it out. I thrive on grammar conversations, and I like being told when I am wrong – because it keeps me from being wrong again. But I absolutely hate being wrong.
So I wasn’t upset by the comment because I thought it was mean-spirited. I appreciated the teasing tone, as well as the lesson. I was upset by the comment because it meant I had messed up.
I started thinking about this again after an editors’ forum that I have been attending most of the week. A keynote speech on Wednesday hammered home the importance of always checking your facts, followed by another on Thursday about “making screw-ups work for you.”
At one point in the speech, we all had to turn to the editor next to us and share stories of our biggest journalistic catastrophes.
I told the story of my first issue of New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles. I was obsessed with every detail. I wanted it to be flawless. I drove my art director crazy with my constant revisions. On the last day before it went to press, I tore into her office in a blind panic. “Tiffani,” I yelled as she looked on, bemused but starting to get used to my insanity/intensity. “We almost spelled Popeyes wrong. Could you imagine? I put an apostrophe in it: Popeye-apostrophe-S. There is no apostrophe. Al Copeland used to joke that when he started the franchise, he was too poor to afford one. Thank God I checked it before we went to press! Now move over and let me do a ‘find and replace’ to make sure it isn’t anywhere else like that except on Page 6.”
When the magazine came back from the printer, I flipped through it with my heart in my throat. It looked OK. Well, there was an en dash in a caption on Page 27 that should have been an em dash, but nothing that anyone normal would notice. Immensely pleased with myself, I took the magazine to a barbecue with friends to show off.
“Hey, it looks great,” said one guy, holding it up to the center spread, “but did you mean to misspell ‘crescent’ in the headline?”
“What?” I yelled, grabbing it back from him, appalled. And there it was, in 64-point font across the center spread of the magazine: “CRESENT CITY.” I had missed it. I had missed it repeatedly. I had caught the obscure punctuation, I had caught the misplaced modifiers, I had fact-checked the name of every business – including Popeyes – and yet I had neglected to spell-check properly.
I calmly set the magazine down, went to the bathroom, threw up, politely said my goodbyes, drove home, and did not sleep for probably the next week. I was inconsolable. Even now, I feel a bit queasy and anxious discussing this.
Other mistakes have been made with copy I have written – one particularly annoying copy editor took the liberty, in a business profile I wrote on a stationery store, of changing all of my references from “stationery” to “stationary,” thus turning it from a store that sold cardstock and engraved invitations to a store that didn’t go anywhere – but making a mistake as an editor just crushed me.
I learned from it, of course. I learned two things: Always spell check, and try to relax. Yes, mistakes are awful, but they are learning opportunities, and everyone makes them (I still don’t totally have such a healthy attitude about it, but it’s a goal). My mistakes may be in print – 64-point print at that – and that sucks, but no one got hurt as a result. It wasn’t the end of the world. And I had another magazine about to come out, so I had no choice but to move forward and try to do better.
After pouring my heart out to my fellow editor at the conference and sharing my life lessons learned, I asked what his screw-up was. He shrugged. “I misspelled ‘student’ on a brochure tab,” he said.
It didn’t seem to haunt him the way it does me.
At first, I thought, “Man, I really want to get there, to a place where mistakes merit a shrug and not a huge, dramatic story that still makes me all panicky and weird more than six years later.”
But then I realized, at least for me, that if I got to a point where I didn’t spend 30 minutes wringing my hands and saying, “Ugh, I said ‘predicate nominative’ instead ‘adjective’ in a blog; what is wrong with me?” – it would mean I had lost all passion about my job.
And that’s a tradeoff I can handle – that feeling in the pit of my stomach over a misplaced comma or a transposed phone number is worth it because it lets me know how much I care, how much I want to constantly improve, how much joy I take in the language and the craft, even when I screw up majorly.
All things being equal, though, I would still very much prefer to just not mess, ever.
If anyone, in the spirit of solidarity, wants to share their major screw-ups in the comments, I promise to laugh sympathetically across the Internet.