Thursday, June 26, 2014

in praise of typo, errata, and error

The URL leads to a piece by Adrienne LaFrance,  "A Corrected History of the Typo" with the subtitle notation, "In the beginning, print was not about perfection; it was a space for collaboration."

LaFrance interviews "Adam Smyth, an English literature fellow at the University of Oxford who specializes in the instability of early modern texts," and he walks her through early printing, the role of errata, and how the relationship of early writers, printers,and readers coalesced around the expected excavation and discussions around error. LaFrance steers the discussion to Smyth with how error is treated online, where it often is erased in corrections (though wiki's most notably keep versions). Together they observe, and this just a sample:
Errata lists in the early days of printed books, then, were themselves a sort of early comment section—the place where revisions were made and ideas were exchanged. They were "confessional spaces" and "emblems of a new culture of accuracy," but errata lists were also a way of seeing books as a collaboration between reader and writer, rather than just the one-way broadcasting of a set of ideas. Which means that print, in its infancy, didn't actually lead to "better, more accurate texts," but to "the dissemination of blunders," Smyth says. It is in this way that the dawn of book printing sounds a bit like where we find ourselves today on the Internet—a fluid and collaborative space for ideas that sometimes seems to be equal parts information-rich and error-riddled. The difference in early print, though, is that errors "were not hidden away." And while screengrabs capture some evaporated Internet writing for posterity, much of what's published today simply disappears or changes with all the imperceptibly of a distant keystroke. 
As a writing teacher, I'd assign this to my students. It's useful for exploring collaboration, for thinking "about tolerating, rather than eliminating, reasonable mistakes," about the social life of information, about the transition into new technologies and how the new starts out by aping what came before it. 

But on the idea of "reasonable mistakes," it would be especially useful for weaker, less confident writers whose fear of error might make it harder to draft, and as well for a discussion of peer review and workshopping, where it might be possible to create a practice of not calling error out for correction but using it as an occasion for discussion and exploration. 

Too, the other lesson to be drawn from this is one wiki's teach as well -- reminding writers to use save as and other techniques for storing drafts, preserving versions of work with errors intact. The goal for most writers will remain on most occasions to publish (or in a course, to turn in a final draft) with as little error as possible, all the way to no errors at all. But the point is, as Paul Krebs notes in another piece I'd assign writers, that error will happen, is in fact necessary for writing to proceed, for thinking to improve, for learning to happen. 

Error is a good thing, and to hide and treat it as a shame, to shame writers who make error, is to shame writing.

1 comment:

LengelCJ said...

"Mistakes are a fact of life," as the title of Andrea Lunsford and Karen Lunsford's article about studying errors in student writing reminds us....