The Typo Half-Life Rule and the Quantum Typo

I wrote a post a while back on the physics of “Editing Half-Lives and the Decay of Typographical Particles”

Basically the theory goes, if you’re editing a manuscript and find half the typos in the first edit, the next time around you won’t get them all, just around half the ones that are left. Third time, half again. And so on.

At some point you think you’ve reached the end of this, since of course you can’t have half a typo, and so it’s off to the publisher.

But theoretical writing physics has advanced!

It turns out that at the end of the editing sequence, there will always be one typo left that nobody at all will find.

It can’t be observed, but the new equations say it’s in there somewhere. It’s a quantum thing.

The title of my paper: Editing Half-Lives and the Decay of Typographical Particles

“Half life” is a scientific concept. I’ve seen it used for medicine and nuclear physics. A radioactive element decays in a weird way, with the decay time measured in half-lives. If the half-life of a radioactive element is ten years, after ten years half of the atoms in that sample will have decayed.

Ten years later it’s all gone, right? Nope. In another ten years, half of the remaining atoms have decayed. Ten years later, half of those remaining atoms. And this dribbles on and on. This isn’t a strictly scientifically accurate explanation, and probability raises its ugly head (or maybe it doesn’t), but it’s close enough.

Typos and other mistakes in a manuscript seem to be like that. In my latest manuscript my readers found a bunch of them to start with, and after the corrections I declared my manuscript “clean.” Then there was another read a while later, and lo! There were a few more mistakes. Not as many, of course. Maybe half. I made the corrections. A few weeks later, someone read it again. More mistakes. Fewer this time.

It’s just been through another read, and a few more mistakes trickled in. This is no big deal, since I haven’t submitted a full to anyone yet, but cripes!

So the way I see it, mistakes in a manuscript have a half-life. No matter how careful the first edit, the next one will find a smaller number of mistakes. And the next one, an even smaller number. I’m not sure yet there’s an end to this process. Plenty of best-selling novels come out from great corporate publishers with a few mistakes still lurking in them.

Eventually, after times ranging from seconds to centuries, all radioactive materials decay to where they’re no more radioactive than something you’d pick up off the ground at the park, at levels only detectable by instruments. Safe enough.

I imagine there’s an acceptable level, even for professional editors, where they decide they’ve run through enough editing half-lives and there’s no more they can do with a manuscript, so off it goes to the printer with no regrets.

Manuscript sweeping

Once my “zero-th” draft of my book was done, I started the editing process by running “sweeps” through the document.  Each sweep has a specific purpose, and is designed to check for specific problems.  By focusing on one issue at a time, my fried brain doesn’t get distracted and miss things.

At least, that’s the theory.  In practice, it ends up being a bit more haphazard.

My first sweep on Zorya was a basic read-through of the story for large-scale screwups.  That’s because this is the first time I’ve ever actually read the whole thing from start to finish.

When you’ve written something over a year’s time, a lot of what you wrote at the beginning might get overlooked when you write the end.  Did I set up a Chekov’s Gun and leave it on the shelf?  Did a character change drastically part way through?  Did any characters that were important at the beginning disappear?  Did any appear out of nowhere?  Why the hell is this scene in there?  Just how many different ways can I spell that guy’s name?  Yikes!  Is that a plot hole?  Good Lord, what was I thinking here?  Say, this part really drags, doesn’t it?

This was where I made sure things flowed correctly from one thing to the next.  Where running gags were tuned, themes polished, and character development checked.  It’s where I pinned everything to the wall, stepped back, and saw if the storyboard still worked.

I picked up a few other loose threads along the way, like spelling errors I spotted as I read (my formal spell check came later).  I also typically write dialogue without quotation marks at the beginning, so I don’t interrupt my train of thought.  When I finish a scene, I go back and add the quote marks and other punctuation, but I often miss a few.  I caught those on this sweep, too.

The next sweep, using text search, was to catch something I had problems with in this particular book:  my story’s character is nocturnal, and it was real easy to forget that.  I needed to make sure day was day and night was night, and I hadn’t flipped it around.  I wasn’t too surprised to find quite a few of these mistakes.  Things like “afternoon” sneaking in there.

I ran another couple of sweeps to check for certain words and writing idiosyncracies I tend to overuse.  I have way too many of these.

Then came the spell-check.  This is enormously tedious.  Microsoft Word’s spell checker is okay, but the grammar checker is quite stuffy about sentence structure, and not very reliable either.  Most of the time I ignore the grammar function, but I have to run it through just in case it catches something important.

Finally, I had to carve the book up into chapters.  I don’t write in chapters, but people expect them, so I had to find the right spots to put the breaks.  This actually went a lot easier than I expect.  Luck, mostly.  I had to think up titles for them, too.  Then I tweaked the new chapter ends to add a bit of cliff-hanging “snap” where necessary.

I printed it out today on my nice little duplex printer, and had it spiral bound at the office store for about eight bucks.  Much cheaper than having them do the double-sided printing for me.  I just presented the first draft to my best beta reader:  my wife.

Hope she likes it.