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I love combing the shelves of second-hand bookshops for a proof. Traditionally, a proof copy is the penultimate version of a book produced by a publishing company for early sales and publicity purposes. There might be NOT FOR RESALE emblazoned on the front matter; further clues could be watermarks, a false cover (which is why my copy of Ennis Ćehić’s Sadvertising is green, not orange), a special sticker that says advanced reading copy, or ARC (advanced reading copy), indicating that it’s for the eyes of booksellers or reviewers only. All of these things make me feel like an undercover detective. My assignment? Tracking down typos.

Aside from the thrill of haggling the price down, there’s something exciting about holding an unproofed copy in your hands. There’s a certain satisfaction in finding a stray apostrophe, a misspelled word or phrase. And there’s something thrillingly alive about an imperfect, close-to-complete object. ‘I have an affectionate fondness for the unfinished, the poorly made,’ wrote Clarice Lispector in her letters. In Sheila Heti’s Pure Colour, the narrator says: ‘There is something exciting about a first draft—anarchic, scrappy, full of life, flawed. A first draft has something that a second one has not.’ The final proof of a book-length work is crafted through many revisions, carved from chunks of structure and whittled down to the finer points of grammar and spelling. So why do there always seem to be typos?

There’s something thrillingly alive about an imperfect, close-to-complete object.

In her book The Typo Slayer, Maxine Phillips writes: ‘Rule No. 1 of typo slaying: it’s the ones that are not misspellings that will always get you.’ Correct words in the wrong place are called ‘atomic typos’, a phrase coined in 1995. As a transcriptionist, nothing brings me more joy than a serendipitously placed misnomer. ‘Statement of cuties’ is one that lives rent-free in my head, along with ‘the voracity of her evidence’. Imagine an employer statement about how cute you must be for the job. Imagine a hungry piece of evidence, hankering for the truth.

I’m currently an editor with the digital publications Mascara Literary Review and Moonland. Online platforms are more forgiving in terms of typos, as they can always be corrected. But for a few months I worked as the editor-in-chief of Voiceworks, which publishes both digital content and a print issue three times a year.

During the editing process, I found myself haunted by the spectre of letting typos through. How it was that, after endless re-readings and collaborative edits by myself and the ever-scrupulous Editorial Committee, I could still overlook and even instigate typos with unscrupulous autocorrect-type spellchecks. In one example, ‘palette’ was suggested over ‘palate’ (the object in question was the jaw of a fruit bat, which had been injured by chewing on barbed wire during a bushfire). I clicked ‘accept’ to banish the squiggly blue line and later realised when reading the print copy that the correction had been a mistake. I had turned the roof of a creature’s mouth into a plate for painting.

I’m making a storm in a teacup with these examples. But typos aren’t always so innocent. In fact, they can even cause diplomatic rumbles. One instance is Project Sedan, a thermonuclear bomb that the US government detonated in Nevada in 1962, resulting in the largest human-made crater in North America and widespread contamination throughout the local population. In 2005, a US congresswoman was recorded mistakenly referring to tests conducted at the Sedan site as ‘tests conducted in Sudan’, requiring the US embassy in Khartoum to issue a statement clarifying the typographical error.

Typos aren’t always so innocent. In fact, they can even cause diplomatic rumbles.

In the literary world, typos can also be (metaphorically) explosive. Jonathan Franzen, famed author of The Corrections, once ended up having 80,000 copies of a novel pulped by HarperCollins because an early draft had made it into the final proof, reproducing a slew of errors. In a similar vein, a first edition of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road contained the line: ‘He saw him walking along the bench downshore’ instead of ‘the beach downshore’, slightly dampening the apocalyptic vibe.

Even the Bible isn’t exempt. In 1631, the royal printers Robert Barker and Martin Lucas reproduced the King James version of the Holy Bible with a missing ‘not’ in Exodus 20:14. As a result, the 14th line reads: ‘Thou shalt commit adultery.’ The edition became known as the Wicked Bible, not just for its naughty commandment, but also because the word ‘greatness’ was misspelled in Deuteronomy 5:24, resulting in the sentence: ‘Behold, the Lord our God hath shewed us his glory and his great-asse.’

Yet, errors and misprints can be lucrative for purveyors of first editions. In 2017, a proof copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone sold for £10,000 because of a typo on the spine that read J.A. instead of J.K. Rowling. Another first edition was sold for £47,000 because the word ‘philosopher’ had been misspelled. There are also some eyewatering mistakes that made it into the final instalment. For instance, when Hermione Granger wipes the memory of a Death Eater in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, she says, ‘I’ve never cast an Obliviate spell before,’ despite having already told us earlier in the novel that she wiped her parents’ memories so she could run away to defeat Voldemort. If anything, I think this probably points out the importance of a meticulous edit.

Errors and misprints can be lucrative for purveyors of first editions.

Proofreading is a very different skill from reading. According to scholar Jan Madraso, when we read, our brain automatically opts for overall comprehension above scrutiny. Our eyes slide over word repetitions and misspellings because we’re looking for meaning, not mistakes. Unlike us petty nitpickers who seize typos like trophies, most readers are more forgiving.

Yet typos are important. They tell us that human (or machine) errors are common, but they’re not inevitable. And they matter first and foremost when considering the writing’s audience.

Many different kinds of readers will be coming to the work, and not everyone will know that Sedan is the name of a nuclear test site, or that ‘school’ meant to say ‘social’, a typo that author Maxine Phillips made while proofing hospital brochures. Pronouns are also important to check. And perhaps fundamentally, when an author has worked so hard to produce a book, honouring this with thorough reading should be a given. At the end of the day, authors have their name attached to the work, but the editors proofing it often don’t, and the risk lies with the author when editorial responsibility falls by the wayside.

Maybe there’s an aspect of schadenfreude to my habit of picking through pages for typos. Part of the satisfaction is knowing that I can find errors where a professional editor hasn’t. When I worked as a magazine editor, we used to print out gigantic proof spreads and cover the floor with the pages. Working with strict budgets and scrimping on paper made me gawp at seeing hundreds of copies of journals go into the skip bin from the building’s offices, knowing how much of the process of editing and publishing in literary magazines is unpaid work. So, imagining tens of thousands of copies being pulped makes me shudder.

Our magazine had an allowance of two typos to be corrected from the 80-page issue; any more and we would have to pay out of the budget. At $60 a pop, it paid to proofread early and thoroughly. We read the proofs as online files several times over a period of several weeks before the final, hardcopy proofing stage, though despite this process mistakes would always fly under the radar. I would cross my fingers and toes and hope that we’d found them all, but no matter how many times we read, errors would come out in print.

Our eyes slide over word repetitions and misspellings because we’re looking for meaning, not mistakes.

There’s something about the printed page that makes mistakes more obvious. Yet even throughout the proofing process, apostrophes can go astray, fine grammar points go unpunctuated, correctly spelled words can shift into alternate meanings and remain unnoticed. Similar to how a musical phrase sounds different when practiced in bars compared to the full piece, errors pop in a different way on printed spreads than on scrolling segments on a screen. I might read over the same PDF document twenty times and not notice errors, some of which inevitably slip into the final copy.

I know that I can’t correct the mistakes of the past. But if I could go back and give any advice to myself during that brief stint as an editor, I would say this: print a hard copy, read in different settings, give your eyes a break regularly. Take time between edits and read with fresh eyes. The shortcut Ctrl + H (‘find and replace’) will change your life. Use it wisely.

At its most harmless, a typo is not the end of the world. While it is embarrassing, it is also proof that somewhere along the way, an error occurred. It unmasks the human behind the machine. After all, what is a typo but creativity persevering?