Last Minute Errors

The July issue of rewrite discusses electronic publishing and e-readers, and this brought to mind how the electronic word enables authors to stay ‘in touch’ with their work after it’s initially published. The idea of successive editions of a work is a legacy of the printed book; now, writers have much more granular control over changes and enhancements to texts that can be readily re-published, lately to electronic readers (e-readers) that can be easily refreshed with the latest content.

But that doesn’t let the writer or editor off the hook with respect to producing clean, error-free writing. In particular, writing that’s free of those annoying errors that crop up at the last minute, just before publication, and often go unnoticed as the momentum to publish takes hold.

So here’s a quick roundup of the most common issues that, if we’re not careful, appear only after we’ve released the finished work. Check for these during final edit, and you can prevent that sinking feeling that happens when readers report a miss-spelled running header, or a table caption that somehow got pushed to the following page.

First, check the pages for the big picture. Often, you can spot formatting errors more easily when you step back a little and view the pages two-up. Check for missing headers and footers, wrong page numbers, and unusual looking gaps and white space. Make sure fonts look consistent, and paragraphs aren’t orphaned across page breaks (leaving just a few words at the top of a new page before a new paragraph). Do diagrams and tables sit correctly with regard to associated text? A common error is for changes in body text to push or pull a table across a page break, resulting in a table header with just one row beneath it, or illustrations with text flowed around them that now doesn’t flow quite as well.

Next, scan a little closer for missing or extra spaces between words, before and after punctuation, and even between paragraphs. When late additions or deletions are made, these sorts of errors are likely. Check that where possible diagrams, tables and figures are on the same page as the text that references them, and that associated captions are correctly attached. Check all numbering – for pages, headers, tables and so on — for consistency, sequence, and integrity.

Search for things like ‘above’ and ‘below’. These terms shouldn’t be used to refer to the relative location of items in the text, and editors generally remove them; but where they are, make sure things haven’t been subsequently moved. Search for references to numbers; often, the number of items of one sort or another – list entries, subsections, even table entries – changes, but the text referring to them doesn’t (“There are five reasons to drink tea” followed by four reasons, for example).

It’s probably best to take the time to double-check any hyperlinks, both inside and outside the document. There’s nothing like dead links inside an online document to undermine its relevance and authority, and if a link is going to go away it will do so at the last minute, you can be sure. That includes those internal links in the table of contents, if necessary (you already checked that the page numbers in the TOC are correct, right? Forgetting to regenerate TOCs is a classic mistake made under stress).

A final check that headings remain parallel is useful. For example, someone added a new section and now six headings are imperatives (such as “Boil the Water”, “Measure the Tea”) and one contains a participle (“Warming the Pot”).

Finally, it’s surprisingly easy in a well-reviewed and heavily edited document to end up with chunks of material – paragraphs and more – that at the last minute either disappear, or are duplicated. Blame cut and paste. This is one of the few errors that a quick scan is more likely to catch than a detailed read-through.

More on this in future, and in particular how common writing tools often seem to conspire to make the late introduction of these sorts of errors almost automatic. We will also look at strategies to avoid having to deal with disgruntled customers who pushed for hasty production and skipped edit rounds, because they didn’t feel error-free text was important until they saw the published article.

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