Friday, April 16, 2010

On Gremlins, Making Mistakes, and Compassion

by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Oh, how easy it is to make a mistake. Oh, how easy it is not to see it in your own material—even if you are a great editor of others' material.

Oftentimes the mistake involves a word that is spelled differently but pronounced the same. And often the author does know the difference between the spelling of the two. It's just that those gremlins that The Frugal Editor is making famous get to us. Maybe we're typing too fast or maybe our brains are in another zone or... but the gremlins will get us—both you and me. Here's an example of how one got me.

I try to take a poetry class once a year. Because I'm an instructor, UCLA Extension Writers' Program gives me one class a year at no charge. It's one of the perks they offer and a great way for them to be sure that their instructors continue to get educated—and at least one of us (me) needs it. So I finished the first draft of my poem. Checked it (well, OK, checked it perfunctorily). I printed out copies so everyone in class would have a critique copy. Stuck the copies into my tote marked "Poetry," and took off for class. Couldn't be late!

When it was my turn to share my poem for critique, I passed out the copies and began to read. There (in the title!) was the word "peer." I meant "pier."

"Oh, gawd," I said. "Make that "pier, p-i-e-r." It was especially awful for me because I am an editor and because I wrote The Frugal Editor. Fine example I had set. What would my classmates think of my abilities? Could I possibly do anything worse to undermine my own credibility?

But here is the most important part. Everyone just nodded and chortled. It can happen to anyone. It can happen to editors, to teachers, to university instructors, to plain-old-everyday writers. The gremlins can hit at any time for any reason.

I thought maybe you'd like to see the poem. Here it is (with the spelling right!):

Death by Ferris Wheel at Santa Monica Pier

From her seat in the gondola. A woman
who might be me, watches roller
bladers with supple bones and toddlers with careless
balloons Far, far down on the pier.

She opens the doors—mini saloon doors of purple—or
she crawls over acrylic barriers. Either way
she hesitates a moment.

The lurch of the wheel as it stops at the top finishes
the job. No scream. Even the plane floating
a campaign trail of plastic behind it, silent. Soundless
waves, too, that far up.

She floats as if posing
for her close-up, delicate fingers, poised toes,
her red sunhat a Frisbee against
sky of pulled taffy clouds on blue.

Sea like scallops of Alençon lace below,
sand stretched away toward the Palisades,
the smell of sugary churros her last sensation.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson ©

By the way. I didn't flunk my class, either.

The lesson here, Aesop fashion, is that because the gremlins are always at work, people will make mistakes. It will happen to you and it will happen to me. Best not get critical and point fingers. Your day is nigh!

And I have to tell you. This led to something good. I now have a booklet—short and easy to read—on some of the homonyms that have tripped up some of my clients. Mind you, these are not the homonyms you learned to watch for in the 4th grade. These are far trickier. Find Great Little Last-Minute Editing Tips for Writers: The Ultimate Frugal Booklet for Avoiding Word Trippers and Crafting Gatekeeper-Perfect Copy on Amazon at

Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits fiction and poetry, is an instructor for UCLA Extension Writers' Program and the author of The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success ( That book is the winner of USA Book News Best Book in the writing/publishing category for 2007, best book in its category for the Reader Views Literary Award, and won the New Generation Indie Best Marketing Campaign award. Learn more at

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1 comment:

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Yvonne, amazing! Twitter beat Google Alerts to letting me know you posted this article this morning! Thank you!

It's turning out that his little booklet is making the best thank you gift I ever used. Every time I give one away, sales go up! (-: BTW, I used to publish it. Your readers may want to research that resource!

Carolyn Howard-Johnson
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