Photo: Scorpion stonework, house on Lilla Nygatan, Stockholm, Sweden; photo S. Heard. How many legs is that again? Oh well, at least the error isn’t carved in stone. Oh, wait….
It wouldn’t surprise me if every paper I’ve ever published contains an error. Mind you, it wouldn’t bother me all that much, either.
I don’t mean major errors, necessarily (although I wouldn’t rule them out); I don’t mean errors in statistical interpretation or errors in judgment*. Mostly, I mean typos, or grammatical errors, or sentences awkward enough to be regretted. It just seems inevitable: as hard as I try, every round of revision includes at least one catch of an error, and if the last round turned up an error, then the would-have-been-next-one-that-I-left-undone surely would have too.
But now I’ve gone and published a book. And if it’s likely that an error will sneak through in a 10-page paper, well, it’s pretty much certain that a bunch will sneak through in a 320-page book. So I know there are errors in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. I don’t know what they are (yet), but I know they’re there. I worked 5 years on the book, with multiple rounds of revision and editing and proofing, but I know the errors are there. And when I find them – when someone points them out to me – I’ll be horrified. It’s the irony, you see. It’s a book about writing. About good writing. Argh.
If I’m especially unlucky, the irony will come in a double helping – perhaps there will be a dangling participle in my chapter on sentence structure, or some redundant, unnecessary words** in my chapter on brevity. There was plenty of private irony as I procrastinated writing my chapter on procrastination; but the public irony, when it comes, is going to burn.
In my defence, I don’t claim to be a particularly good writer. In fact, I think some of the value in my book comes from the fact that its author (me) is just an ordinary scientific writer like everybody else, who struggles at writing and has only become adequate through long, deliberate practice. If I was a naturally fluent writing genius, I’d probably be unable to offer useful advice. Would you ask Bach to teach you to play the organ? This defence makes perfect intellectual sense to me – but it isn’t going to make me feel any better.
So, if you’re reading The Scientist’s Guide to Writing and you find one of my errors, what should you do? Well, this post might sound like I’m asking you to keep it to yourself, but no: the only thing worse than an error I know about is an error I don’t know about. And if I’m lucky and the book sells well, perhaps there will be a second edition and I can fix my errors. So bring it on! Email me, tweet me, or just drop a comment on this post; but don’t spare your eagle eyes. And if we’re lucky, the error you find will be one we can both laugh at.
And what about you? Sorry, but your papers probably have errors too. Little ones, for sure; maybe once in a long while, one that merits publishing an erratum***. You don’t want to be sloppy, of course; but it’s impossible not to ever make a mistake (in writing, as in everything else). So if someone finds a mistake in a paper of yours, be grateful and be gracious, but don’t be ashamed. And if it will make you feel better, write to me and I’ll point out some of my errors.
© Stephen Heard (email@example.com) June 2, 2016
*^Well, Table 2 in Heard and Remer 1997 was definitely an error in judgment. I mean, who could possibly have thought a table was a good way to present those data?
**^See what I did there? I crack me up.