To Err Is Human—It’s What Comes Next That Matters

“Look at this!”

Everyone in the darkened room gasped. We were at an editing conference, and the keynote speaker, a noted journalism expert, had placed a scan of a magazine cover on the display screen. A large, red circle drew attention to the mistake: “February” had been misspelled as “Febraury,” and the typo had gone to press.

The silence that followed was striking—even though the magazine in question was one of our competitors, there were no smug titters. Because every editor present was frozen in the same exact thought: “I could have done that, too.”

The speaker went on with his talk, but I was still staring at the screen. Finding errors in my own work always causes a stab of private chagrin—to have such a simple but egregious typo shamed so publicly would be mortifying.

Or, maybe I should say, “is” mortifying. I think a lot of us can share stories of when one of our errors—spelling, punctuation, grammar, word choice—was called out in an embarrassing way.

One such episode that is forever burned into my memory happened during my senior year in college. I was taking an advanced writing class that was fulfilling requirements for both my major and my minor (so it was doubly important that I do well). A full 65% of the grade for the course rested on just one project. To receive our grades on the project, each student had to meet with the professor, Dr. B., one-on-one in his office.

When my time came, Dr. B. invited me in and asked me to have a seat. He had my project in his hands, and he stood over me, glowering fiercely. Now, Dr. B. was a tall, broad-shouldered man, and he was also involved in local theater, so when he wanted to look fierce, he looked fierce.

“What’s the difference between I-T-S and I-T-apostrophe-S?” he boomed in his deepest stage voice. The sound, which could have echoed to the back seats of any theater, overwhelmed the small office.

I somehow managed to stammer the correct answer: “I-T-S is possessive; I-T-apostrophe-S is the contraction ‘it is.’”

Dr. B. handed the cover letter of my project to me. There on the first line he’d found a possessive “its” with an errant apostrophe. He’d circled the offending punctuation with an expanding spiral of red ink, like a taunting bull’s-eye in the center of the page.

“That was the only problem I found,” he said with a huge grin. “Congratulations.”

For years afterward—whether proofreading or editing, writing, or even just casual reading—I never failed to scrutinize every “its” and “it’s.”

I wish I could say I never made that mistake again, but of course I have. Because that’s what we humans do, when our fingers are flying and we’re focused on the larger messages we need to convey.

The real lesson here is this: Even the best of us make mistakes. The trick is to find and fix them before our work becomes public. That’s why hiring an experienced editor is a good idea. We can help you correct your work—before it ends up on a conference display screen with big red circles on it.

By Laurie Bonner, Editor for TalentMEDIA Services. To reach Laurie, you can email her at

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