Embracing Error


Recently, I’ve been thinking about errors. More specifically, textual errors. When writing, they are the enemy. We wage an endless war against textual mistakes. It is almost a creed: shun the error, seek perfection. I have ranted and raged against my own mistakes, zealously purged and extirpated them. And yet we all know that perfection is an impossible ideal, a platonic form. Mistakes will slip into our work, lurking below the surface. These blunders are part of the makeup of everything that we read and write. We fill in the blanks inside our mind, see what we expect to see. To our perception of text, these errors are invisible. They are particles in the scholarly air we breathe, microscopic but myriad pollutants.

A missing number here, a slightly misquoted sentence there. We all recognise something that is “riddled with errors” that are impossible to ignore. And yet there are errors that are more subtle and minute, errors that sneak through several rounds of editing. Should we fear these mistakes? Naturally, we all want our work to be the best that it can possibly be, and yet these small innocuous flaws are like the bacteria that cover every surface, invisible to the human eye. How much attention to detail is too much?

The internet has increased the rate of errors. Our always-on high volume media environment breeds flaws—be they transcription errors, typos, or good old-fashioned grammatical mistakes—and unleashes them in plague proportions. Internet-based news copy has an extremely high rate of error, and even the best media outlets cannot fully compensate. Blogs and websites are also riddled with mistakes, despite often vigorous attempts to test and correct them. And yet the impermanence of the internet allows us to correct these blunders on the fly. Is a mistake a mistake if it can be instantaneously corrected on discovery? Will anyone in the future ever know that the error existed?

My recent editorial experiences have made me realise that there are endless strata of errors, descending in a cascade of obscurity that continues to expand before us no matter how well trained our eyes may be. The search for editorial purity is a worthy and rewarding quest, and yet ultimately futile. Nothing created by the hand of a human will ever be perfect. Computers cannot wholly compensate for our failings, although they can be our greatest ally. Perhaps future computers will turn out perfect writing free from all flaws and irregularities, but this sounds like a textual dystopia rather than an outcome that I would embrace. I want well-crafted writing, but dread a future free from error. The messy ad-hoc nature of our print culture is a burgeoning sign of our humanity.

Where am I going with this? Perhaps my conclusion is that we should just let it go. There is no excuse for lazy writing, a lack of proofreading or bad editorial practice, and yet writers are prone to agonise, to live in fear of discovering a mistake. PhD theses are a case in point, for they are never fully perfect. They, like the process that they represent, are a manifestation of something substantial and original, and yet provisional. Writing, like research, is always in progress. Feelings of guilt and anxiety surround writing. And yet our little failures, our tangential weaknesses, are what make us unique and beautiful. If you offered me a machine that turned out 100 per cent perfectly edited writing, I would ask what the cost was. Like a deal with the devil, the search for perfection must have a price. Will we let it be our peace of mind, our satisfaction? Writing well and writing perfectly are not synonymous.

Medievalists study scribal errors, and they teach us a great deal about countless aspects of the past. The mistakes of medieval minds speak to us, for they remind us of our own. Wouldn’t we want future eyes to see our human imperfection? To give up our errors is to give up our humanity.

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