If we learn more from our failures than our successes, I’m a bona fide scholar. Many of those hard lessons were deserved, but others seem unfair and unjustified. Case in point: One inadvertent misspelling in a book of 70,000 words wounded my pride and diminished my reputation. No apology could restore what was lost.
Every writer hates typos—those gremlins on the page or screen that confuse readers, raise doubts and challenge one’s credibility. The easy explanation is human error. We all make mistakes. But that’s just cognitive dissonance to a professional author. We must be infallible, perfect and offer no excuses, no rationalizations.
As a published freelancer for 40-plus years, a former journalism grammar instructor, and an obsessive proofreader, I take pride in my editing skills. But none of that matters when you’re the victim of the dreaded typo. A single error is costly and perplexing a decade after it appeared in Trauma Journalism: On Deadline in Harm’s Way.
My book profiled American and international war correspondents and other journalists who covered crimes, conflicts, disasters and tragedies. It analyzed an emerging effort within the media and mental health profession to recognize the psychological impact trauma reporting has on journalists and their sources, even entire communities. I spent more than six years writing the book, conducting scores of interviews and researching numerous texts. I compiled almost 500 footnotes.
The book was published in fall 2011 by Continuum-Bloomsbury, a respected international firm. The foreword was written by Terry Anderson, a noted journalist and best-selling author, famous for his own trauma. Anderson was Middle East bureau chief for the Associated Press in March 1985 when he was abducted by Lebanese terrorists and held captive for almost seven years. I was honored to have his endorsement. In November 2011, Terry was teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, where I was invited to speak.
The next day I received what I thought was a thank you email from an expert source in Australia, a woman I had profiled as a global leader in the trauma journalism reform movement. But she was writing not to praise but to bury me—all because of a damnable typo. In one sentence I had inexplicably written “Tanzania” not “Tasmania” as the site of the deadly 1996 Port Arthur massacre, where 35 people were killed and 23 wounded by a lone gunman. On an earlier page, I had correctly listed Tasmania. But on the second reference, the typo appeared. Both words have eight letters, including the same last four: ania. Add an “m” and you have some idea of my mental state when I realized the error. This typo had been overlooked by me, my editor, the publisher’s copy editor and several other readers BEFORE publication.
Despite my heartfelt apologies, official mea culpas by the publisher and issuance of an errata message, the trauma expert from “Down Under” was adamant in condemning my book and blacklisting me among her colleagues. For many years I used this jagged memory as a teaching tool with my journalism students, who tended to shrug off typos like pesky insects. No, it isn’t right that an entire book and one’s life work can be undermined by one misused word. But nobody said the writing life was fair. Lesson learned.
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