“Lead” Poisoning: An Open Letter to Pat Meehan

Dear Pat,

I generally don’t discuss politics on my blog, and I’m not about to start now. At the same time, however, I have to take issue with a recent mailer in which the Republican Federal Committee of Pennsylvania asks me to vote for you based on your record of fighting to strengthen campus safety throughout the United States through your support of the Clery Act. My problem isn’t with your record; as a faculty member at Montgomery County Community College, I appreciate the value of a safe campus. As a member of the English Department, however, I must point out a glaring typographical error on the part of whoever composed the mailer in question.

Touting your record in relation to such an important facet of higher education as campus safety, the mailer reads, “Pat Meehan lead the fight to strengthen campus safety and protect students.” As you may know, the past tense of “lead” is “led.” As you may also know, the word “lead” can also refer to the chemical element listed as Pb on the periodic table. “Lead,” however, is not used as the past tense of “lead.” That the flyer in question draws the reader’s attention to the misspelled word by both underlining and highlighting it in red makes the mistake difficult to ignore. What’s more, the fact that this mailer ostensibly focuses on higher education renders the error especially egregious.

Although I’m rarely one to offer advice to those in the political realm, my recommendation to your friends in the Republican Federal Committee of Pennsylvania is identical to the recommendation I make to all of my students before they submit their work: proofread. More to the point, if you’re going to pander to educators — especially those who teach writing — you might want to make sure that you don’t go out of your way to draw attention to your spelling errors.

Warmest Regards,

Marc Schuster

PS: I think you’ll like my latest novel, The Grievers. You may even find a typo or two in it.

Exhibit A

Adventures in Editing: For Want of a Balloon

I suppose I’m spoiled by blogging: I have an idea. I type it up. Maybe, if I’m feeling ambitious, I proofread what I’ve written. I click the “Publish” button, and the world can see what’s on my mind. It’s the ultimate in immediate gratification.

By way of contrast, book publishing is a much slower process. It took me about seven years to get my latest project to a point where I was comfortable sharing it with people, and then came several rounds of revision before I sent it to my publisher. Then the publisher had some suggestions, and I did some more revisions. After that, it went to a copy editor, then to the typesetter, then back to the copy editor for one more look, and then to the typesetter again.

From time to time, I’ve been tempted to complain about how long this process takes: I just want to see my book in print, dammit! But ultimately I know that the slow pace of the publishing process is a good thing. Today, I found out why:

There’s a passage toward the end of the book in which the narrator, Charley Schwartz, who has a job that involves marching back and forth in front of a bank dressed as a giant dollar sign, gets assaulted by a gang of children who want a bouquet of balloons that’s tied to his wrist. The children knock him down, then proceed to kick him violently while pulling at the balloons. He’d love to surrender them, but he can’t because they’re tied to his wrist.

All well and good, but…

A few minutes later, the kids skitter away, and Charley has a chat with his boss. The boss asks Charley to assess his talents. He mentions that he’s good at holding onto his balloons. True enough, but when Charley subsequently shimmies out of his costume, there’s no mention of his balloons. Surely, they’d get in the way as he tried to slip out of the costume, right? But no — not a peep from our narrator about where his balloons have gone. They’ve magically disappeared.

And the balloons are a big deal. There’s a red balloon on the cover of the book, after all. And Charley’s relationship with his balloons is the kind of thing that I’m drawing the reader’s attention to throughout the book — only to have them disappear without a mention as the narrative moves toward its climax. Sloppy storytelling on my part — and I didn’t catch it until just a few days ago when I was reading the passage to an audience at Rosemont College.

Wait a second! I thought to myself. What happened to his balloons?

Fortunately, though, the publishing process does take a long time. This morning I received an email from the typesetter in which she asked if I had any last-minute changes to make.

Yes! I wanted to shout. Give Charley some balloons!

Of course, shouting wouldn’t have done any good, so I found the passage in question and filled in the missing information.

Curious about the specifics? Anyone who has a review copy can check out chapter sixteen. If you missed the detail about the balloons, don’t worry! It took me years to catch the error — and I had a whole team of editors helping me out. If you don’t have a review copy, even better. Just pre-order a copy of The Grievers today and rest assured that you’ll never have to worry about Charley’s missing balloons.*

*Yes, this post is just one more shameless attempt at plugging my book.