Why you need to know the difference between writing errors & writing mistakes

Most old-fashioned editors (hereafter known as OFEs**) and all my happy clients know that when it comes to “sticking to the rules” of writing I am an anarchist.

mistakes in writing

The fact that information crosses approximately 3,400 miles of Atlantic Ocean in less time than it takes you to sneeze does rather make a mockery of trying to preserve the good olde days of British English. British, American, Australian? They’re all OK.

Please note, however, that I’m not particularly anarchic in any other ways. I never burned my bra for Women’s Lib (although I was too young to need one then) and I didn’t even go to the anti-Trump protests in London in 2018 but only because there was no-one available to let my dogs out for wee-wees.

Grammar, spelling, punctuation: do you control them or do they control you?

This question has been bothering me for a long time over issues like the Oxford comma and whether you use a capital letter after a colon or not. Short answer? Issues like that do not matter worth a pinch of coonsh*t, as my dear old Canadian dad used to say.

Yet I had an OFE say to me not long ago that a piece of writing I had done was “riddled with errors” just because she didn’t like where I had placed a couple of commas to add emphasis.

Another time I caught merry hell from an OFE because I like to use ellipses (leader dots) rather more than the rule books say you should. Simple reason for that is, ellipses add a sense of drama … or a hint of humour … almost like giving readers a wink. But the winks don’t work on OFEs.

And yet another time I was berated by a (British) OFE because I use double inverted commas (quotation marks) for speech. “I do wish you would stop using that awful American habit,” he spat.

I didn’t have the heart to point out that most English language speakers of all nationalities couldn’t give a horse potootie*** whether there are one or two little squiggles either end of some direct speech.

Although in ancient times the Brits used to growl at Noah Webster for d*cking around with the English language, the fact that information crosses approximately  3,400 miles of Atlantic Ocean in less time than it takes you to sneeze does rather make a mockery of trying to preserve the good olde days.

So, in brief, should we allow “the rules” as set out by OFEs to control our day to day writing?

Or should we take control of “the rules” and modify them, where relevant, to enhance our written thoughts and feelings? I believe in the latter.

The difference between an error and a mistake

There isn’t one, really. I have just given these two words different meanings to illustrate my points.

An error should be a goof that is a forgivable and even understandable breach of “the rules,” particularly when used (or abused, I suppose) to enhance the thoughts and emotions being conveyed. And that’s reinforcing the writer’s original message – not detracting from it.

A mistake should be a goof that displays ignorance of spelling, basic grammar and syntax that reflects badly on the writer and their writing, perhaps suggesting that they are unprofessional. Mistakes also should be any goofs that mislead or misinform the reader in some way.

Let’s now take a look at some examples of both.

Errors: forgivable and understandable breaches of “the rules” that enhance and support your writing

Breaches of punctuation rules as I have described in this article

Starting sentences with And or But … an outdated “rule” says you shouldn’t do that. Everyone but the ultra-OFEs say it’s OK. I say it’s OK. And if it makes sense to you and your readers, it’s OK: that’s all that really matters.

Writing sentences without verbs in them …and even one or two word sentences. You don’t want to overdo it as in the current fashion for writing sentences intended to emphasise something big time, like “No. Way. Will. I. Ever. See. Him. Again.” … OK, we get the picture but maybe bold italics would do the trick without the hiccups. But, hey.  Be open-minded. OK?

Using double inverted commas / quotation marks when someone, somewhere, says those are wrong. See above. Sheesh. Single ones work too.

Using commas where they are not supposed to be according to OFE Rule # 437, but make your text work better.

Using ellipses (see above) when they add a little drama, suspense or whatever to your writing. That is as opposed to the correct way of using ellipses which is, according to Dictionary.com, “omission of words or part of a sentence.” So maybe … (!!) “We walked back from the main building … (which was just a few hundred yards/metres away) and stopped off for lunch at the restaurant on the corner.”

Mistakes: unwitting breaches of the rules due to writer ignorance, leading to possible misinformation and an unprofessional image

Any inadvertent mistakes in basic writing. Today it’s easy to get help with your written spelling, grammar and syntax even through generalist portals like Grammarly. Unless you know that you write well and reasonably “properly,” use these facilities. That’s what they’re there for. And why? Don’t confuse writing ignorance, with writing nuances.  (HINT: if in doubt, check out your writing here on HTWB. Nearly 2,000 articles and tutorials to help you.)

Unclear understanding, or at least unclear portrayal of that understanding. So many people writing for websites, blogs and even books don’t get what their readers want and need to read. Do your homework. Write what they need to know – not (necessarily) what you want to say. Put yourself in your readers’ shoes: what would you want to know?

Long-windedness. People today have neither the time nor inclination to read long, convoluted prose that uses six sentences to describe something that’s more effectively done in one. Long words do not make you look important or clever: they make you look pompous. Long blocks of text are bad enough on paper but online they make readers’ eyes water.

Poor knowledge of silly words with different spellings that you get wrong. Have a look at my cheeky little eBook that helps us out of quite a few common homonyms and other goofs.

Sloppy typos. It’s easy to proofread your writing: do it backwards, word by word. That way you see what you’ve written out of context, which makes mistakes show up much more easily. And don’t let me hear anyone say it’s not worth worrying about. “If this organisation can’t manage to get the text right on the home page of their website, what else do they get wrong?” … as a colleague of mine said recently about a company’s supposed professionalism. ‘Nuff said.

And what about writing literary fiction?

Ironically some of the squillion selling literary prize winners sometimes use very bizarre syntax, punctuation (or no punctuation) and other rather basic elements of “good” writing. This probably has the oldest-fashioned OFEs draining the nearest bottle of antacid medicine.

Where the difference exists between this type of writing – literary fiction – and the rest that the first is more of an art form, and the second is more of a communications channel. Obviously there is overlap, but in the latter case we’re often more concerned with logic and accuracy … hence a greater need to avoid mistakes.

That’s not to suggest that literary fiction is inaccurate, of course. But it can get away with a much looser interpretation of facts, plots, stories, etc. Let’s just say whereas literary fiction is like a painting or drawing – even the abstract type – the other writing categories are more like photographs.

Punchline: by all means use small “errors” to enhance what you write, but do not make careless mistakes.

 

**OFEs – old-fashioned editors. I can be rude about editors because I work as one in addition to writing. And I’m old. But not fashioned. Actually I help clients write well within their own personalities even if that does involves a few “errors,” as long as we get rid of any mistakes.

***horse potooties: another favourite of my dear late dad’s. A western Canadian euphemism for the shapes of a healthy horse’s poop, meaning roughly the same as bullsh*t. NB: I once wrote the term horse potooties into a corporate script for a British actor who was moonlighting in “business theatre” from his evening performances in London’s production of Chess years ago. He was so charmed by horse potooties that he managed – Heaven only knows how – to incorporate it into his lines in the musical. I have since dined out a lot on the fact that two whole words I wrote now have been performed on the West End London stage.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

 

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