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I'm currently reading a sci-fi book that has over a dozen characters. The author had written dialog for two different characters using the same odd idiom in two separate chapters so far. I cannot see this being intentional, and to me, it is visible and easily detectable by writing software like Scrivener.

I've noticed this sort of thing in multiple novels. So, why do novels end up with such mistakes? Aren't there proofreaders, editors, publishers, etc. who review the work before publishing? What precautions should writers take, not to fall in such mistakes?

  • 2
    Did the two characters come from the same region? Idioms are much more regional than personal – Rasdashan Mar 28 at 19:38
  • No. In fact, the two are from different countries. One from Britain, and the other from a southern US state. – iamtowrite Mar 28 at 19:58
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    There are strong similarities between some regions of the UK and parts of New England, but the southern states have different idioms. – Rasdashan Mar 28 at 20:16
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Lack of proofreading has been the bane of writing in many locations over the last few years.

Do you remember back when newspapers came to your house and you paid to subscribe? Okay, maybe you don't, due to age or location, but it was a thing. Most people (at least among the college-educated folks I knew) subscribed to the daily local paper which was filled with articles, columns, and all sorts of written things.

Those newspapers had a little section, usually on or near the editorial page, that noted the mistakes from previous issues (rarely more than 1-2 days old). Factual errors (saying 14250 tons instead of 1405 tons) of course were top of the list. But they also noted regular mistakes. Misspellings of names and such.

As for ordinary typos, they were rare. I only sometimes found a single one in an entire issue. Ditto for magazines. And published books? hardly ever.

But now people get their news online, read only selected magazine articles sent to them in email or on the company's website, and download e-books for free or 99 cents. For some of these media, subscriber fees were just part of revenue. But now ads pay less as well. As recently as 5-10 years ago, a good blogger could get a decent income (not a living, but a good supplement) from hosting ads. Now the ads pay a fraction of what they used to.

All these means is there is less staff available to check manuscripts. It's endemic in online columns. Popular and profitable columns like Ask a Manager and Savage Love have 1, 2, or 3 typos and other obvious errors per column. These are not blogs and they have paid staff.

But you didn't ask about periodicals. You asked about novels. They are connected though. Less money in means fewer staff people. And the whole self-publishing trend has changed the industry. Whether it's blogs or novels, people do it themselves and they don't always think a professional editor is important.

How can a writer protect against this?

First, you have to care. You do. I do. But, frankly, a lot of people just don't. They don't notice the mistakes or they just don't think they matter. (And when they're in an environment where mistakes matter greatly, they are appalled and try to escape.)

If putting out a perfect manuscript is important to you, you'll budget the time and expense to make it happen.

Second, you have to oversee. If you have a traditional publisher, you have to check that they're doing what they should. If it's a top publisher, they probably are. But smaller presses might cut corners. If you are self-publishing, you have to make sure the work happens and then oversee it to make sure it's being done right.

Every novel needs several stages of editing. I can't list them all off but, if I were self-publishing, I'd find the lists online and in books and study them and create a version that worked for me.

What most self-publishers don't understand is that editors can't be the author and that they can't be amateurs. Sure, use beta readers and friends and family, but that's not for pre-publication editing, it's to get the manuscript to a stage where it's ready to submit to publishers. The editing comes after acceptance.

Pay for the work.

If you have professional standards for your work (and we all should!!), then hire professionals. An editor to work on structure and the big picture. Editors for scenes, dialogue, and smaller things. A proofreader. And someone to do the formatting setup for e-books and/or printing. One editor might be enough and some editors can also proofread. But the process takes multiple steps and can't be done all at once. Not for something large like a novel.

Third, do the final read yourself.

May all our works be perfection!

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    I think your comment is spot on. But I would like to add, that even if you care, you will not spot all errors an external proofreader would find. You are too immersed in your own world, you have the logic in your head etc. You don't see logic errors, confusing explanations or even typos. if you doubt this, try reading something which you don't have in your head anymore, e.g. something written a month or a year ago. You will find weak spots galore. – Christian Sauer Mar 29 at 7:47
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    @ChristianSauer exactly. The caring is to take the next steps of hiring outside editors/proofreaders (or making sure your publisher does). – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 29 at 13:49
  • The error that the question is talking about would not be for a proofreader to spot, but rather a copy editor. Copy editors are the people who ensure that books are internally consistent. – Mike Scott Mar 30 at 12:22
  • @MikeScott nodding. I was not sure of the names of the different kinds of editors, just that there were multiple levels of them. – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 30 at 14:37
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I just recently got an ARC from an author who's a friend of mine. Reading through it, I noticed that in one scene, a character started out drinking one thing, but at the end of the scene there was something completely different in their cup. I mentioned the continuity mistake to the author, and the response was basically "Oops, I started with the one thing, then changed it because I realized it was out of character, but I missed changing it in that one place. Good catch!"

So, why do novels end up with such mistakes?

Because people miss things. In this particular case, the author mentioned that their usual proofreader had been unavailable due to a health emergency.

Aren't there proofreaders, editors, publishers, etc. who review the work before publishing?

Sometimes. Sometimes they aren't available. Sometimes the author just doesn't hire one at all. In this age of Kindle self-publishing, you unfortunately see a lot of "shovelware" books that are basically a first or second draft dumped straight onto the Kindle store because it's quicker that way.

What precautions should writers take, not to fall in such mistakes?

There's a principle in computer programming known as "Linus's Law," after Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, who relies on this heavily. The law states "with enough eyes, all bugs are shallow [ie. easy to find.]" The same principle can be applied to writing. Show it to people before you publish. Not just the editor, not just the proofreader. Show it to friends. Show it to your writing group. (Get a writing group if you don't have one!) Show it to readers who have sent in insightful feedback on your previous books. (That's how I ended up in a position to get this ARC.) Get enough different people looking at it before publication, and you'll end up publishing something a lot more polished than you would otherwise.

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    It is good to remember that Linus's Law should be viewed with a grain of salt - Thousands of developers and users stared Shellshock in the face for 25 years before it was publicly noticed... So in addition to having 'lots of eyes' on things, it is important to help those eyes keep in mind the sort of things they're looking for. – TheLuckless Mar 28 at 23:17
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    Adding to @TheLuckless' comment, see also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linus%27s_Law#Validity – a CVn Mar 29 at 12:47
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    @aCVn That section is pure nonsense. Robert Glass's argument "refutes" an obvious strawman claim that no one was actually making, and shows a complete lack of understanding of the "long tail" principle. And the Heartbleed example does more to confirm the validity of Linus's Law than it does to refute it. OpenSSL could be a literal textbook example of how not to run an open-source project, and one of the biggest problems was that nobody was actually reviewing it! But as soon as Heartbleed drew serious attention to the project, people looked at it, found more bugs, and fixed them. – Mason Wheeler Mar 29 at 13:22
  • @MasonWheeler The grain of salt for Linus' Law probably should be that the eyeballs have to care about what they are looking at, and that includes actually looking at the code instead of not looking because everyone else is already looking at it. – Michael Mar 29 at 19:14
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It could be that the author is highlighting the similarities between the two. It could be creative provincialism (A U.S. writer not knowing that a British person would not say that, or vice versa). It could be that strange minds think alike (An example from Spongebob Squarepants where both Patrick and Mermaidman independantly believe "Wumba" is the opposite of "Miniturize" or in Archer, where upon learning that the situation involves the Prime Minister of Italy, several characters independently offer up they though Italy was still a Monarchy with the same reaction of "Wait, I thought Italy has a King.")

Another example is that it's an early installment weirdness, where the series is in it's infancy and still trying to find it's voice and proposes concepts and ideas that are later excised and made impossible. It could even be that authors and writers have styles that can be observed with increased familiarity with their works. Joss Whedon, for example, has a reputation for killing off innocent and fan beloved characters in horrible ways. Greg Weisman (who does a lot of Cartoon Works) has a fondness to Shakespeare References and villains' who kick off the episode plot to distract from their real goals.

  • "It could be that the author is highlighting the similarities between the two. It could be creative provincialism (A U.S. writer not knowing that a British person would not say that, or vice versa)." I once read a painfully bad story where two American characters living in Seattle were staying in a flat, keeping their car in a car park, and worrying about whether or not they'd have enough quid to deal with rent and other financial obligations. Guess where the author was from? (Hint: not Seattle!) – Mason Wheeler Apr 11 at 21:22
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    @MasonWheeler I've also seen two seperate Japanese works do a Tour of America, where they arrive on the West Coast and take the Train East... which is a great way to do that in Japan, but in the States you run into the issues of a much wider West to East Nation AND the fact that those coast to coast trains are mostly freight not passenger. It's called "Fly Over Country" for a reason. – hszmv Apr 12 at 19:24
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I have a relative who works as a freelance proof reader. She does good and thorough work. Not only typos, but also awkward language and other problems get reported and fixed.

Unfortunately, publishers don't want good work. They want cheap work. There are a number of freelancers and the lowest bidders get all the work.

The worst of the low bidders scroll through the manuscript, look at the squiggly lines and replaces each with the first suggestion. The result is horrible. It is also fast and cheap.

She still has a good reputation and gets some work, but she is not allowed to charge much more than the "market price" set by the deadbeats.

Part of the problem is that most readers don't care. They will read the book with the same enjoyment and still recommend it to their friends if it is error-ridden. As long as the errors don't affect sales numbers much, the publisher will not care. It is a business and money is at the root of all decisions.

What can be done? The publisher doesn't care, so the author must pick up the slack. Mason Wheeler's suggestion that more test readers equals more problems fixed is the best advice here.

  • You're welcome. But note that I only caught one thing. The bulk of the edit was from @PeterMortensen – Cyn says make Monica whole Apr 1 at 7:06
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I think I recently read about a popular series writer employing a continuity proofreader: someone with a good memory that has digged himself into the series and the writer's work so deep to be able to catch continuity breaks that happened to creep into the work since the world of a writer is constantly reshaping itself and they don't remember unfailably which facets they have already cast into words and print and have to keep valid and which parts are free to further evolve as work on the series progresses.

This was a special job consigned by a non-trivial writer due to the availability of a specialist in their work. It's not the rule.

Basically: someone has to the job. Usually the writer but they can be more fallible than versed readers since the universe they are working with is more than the written universe where consistency errors count.

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