How to Recover Gracefully from a Typo
Every editor has a story about the one that got away: The infamous typo that slipped past their careful eye. I had an embarrassing one this month. I crafted a “Happy New Year” email and sent it to my contact list. Then one of my writing colleagues told me I’d said I was planning to start a monthly bog instead of a monthly blog.
The first step to recovering gracefully from the inevitable mistake is to take a deep breath. Then, 1) evaluate the damage, 2) own up to it, and 3) prevent it from happening again.
Evaluate the damage
Not all mistakes are created equal. Yes, some mistakes are costly (sometimes literally). Some are minor. My bog/blog mistake was mortifying, but it gave me my first topic.
Will most people simply read over it? Is it embarrassing but also funny? Or will it cost the organization a lot of money and/or tarnish its reputation? How serious the mistake is determines what to do next.
What caused the mistake?
Some mistakes are simple human error. But some mistakes reveal another problem. Perhaps proofreading needs to be added to the workflow or prioritized more. Perhaps one person needs to project manage copy from start to finish to ensure quality control.
Is it a real mistake?
A grammar curmudgeon wrote in to complain about a split infinitive? “The hard line formerly taken against the split infinitive has softened of late, and most modern usage guides say it's all right to split an infinitive in the interest of clarity,” says Merriam-Webster. A reader doesn’t like your organization’s use of singular they? English changes all the time. Politely acknowledge their message and move on.
Own up to it
If someone else points out the mistake, don’t get defensive or make excuses (and if you’re the one pointing out the mistake, please be kind about it). It was tempting to blame my bog/blog mistake on #MomBrain, but that would be unprofessional. Instead, one of my favorite responses is: “Thank you for bringing this to my attention.”
Some, but not all, mistakes need a public apology or correction. Think about:
How many people saw the mistake? A message that went out nationally has more opportunity for embarrassment than a message to a small group, especially if there’s already a personal rapport between the writer and the audience.
How formal or professional was the copy? A certificate is different than an email which is different than a weekly print publication.
What kind of information was in mistake? Inaccurate deadlines or URLs, for example, probably need a correction.
Did the typo inadvertently make the writing offensive or explicit? Every editor lives in fear of missing an invisible L in the word public, but if your audience is children, for example, that typo should be fixed.
Will readers be more annoyed by the extra message? Yet another email in their inbox might be worse than one harmless typo.
Some mistakes in online copy can be quietly corrected, but even so, your organization’s transparency policy may require you to state a correction. This is a good idea if some people likely have already read the copy and different information could cause confusion.
Prevent future mistakes
Prevention comes down: 1) prioritizing proofreading, 2) triage editing, and 3) having smart resources.
People often skip proofreading when they’re in a hurry. But sloppy work is disrespectful to your audience and hurts your brand. Make sure everything gets reviewed at least once by someone who didn’t write it. I’d tweaked my “Happy New Year” email several times and my eyes read over the typo every time because my brain knew what was supposed to be there. Also, bog is a real word, so spell check wasn’t going to catch this one for me. Humans aren’t perfect, but we’re still smarter than machines. If the copy is particularly important, it’s worth hiring a professional on a contract basis or on staff.
Just like medical professionals treat the most serious conditions first, editors can prioritize what to focus on, especially if there is a time crunch. Focus on what your organization values most, but also double check these common offenders:
dates (including the day of the week)
numbers of any kind (do the math)
headings, subject lines, photo captions, etc.
One of my worst mistakes as a new editor was not catching a misspelled name in an obituary of a highly respected member of the community. Misspelled names are one of the things that will annoy or offend people the most. And don’t forget to check for accents and other diacritical marks (like José).
Have smart resources
Prepare these tools and resources ahead of time – and use them!
a checklist of steps and priorities for proofreading
a written in-house style guide, including terms that are specific to your organization
customized Microsoft Word flags for common offenders
a designated proofreader who isn’t the writer
I cringed when I realized I missed a typo in an email for people who I know professionally, but fortunately my bog/blog mistake isn’t a matter of life or death. But you can be sure that, for this post, I used all my proofreading tricks to make sure it was absolutely perfect!