Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What Mistakes Are Acceptable In A Book?

What Mistakes Are Acceptable In A Book?

Can you name a flawless book? A book that gets it all right. Fabulous characters, great plot, skillful yet readable prose, without any errors in grammar? They exist, of course, but are few and far between.

My post today is focusing on the little niggling errors that authors and editors miss. You know what I'm talking about - you proof-read your paper 50 times, turn it in, and then get back a big red mark showing that you spelled "controversy" as "controvery." (I misspelled that exact word today in an email to a client. I looked like an idiot and went back and forth with her all day trying to make up for it.)

Published books are revised again and again by authors and editors, but things still slip through. Some are pure typographical or grammar errors, others are poor word choice or plot holes. Even a wonderfully crafted novel usually has a mistake or two.

Let's examine a few:

1. Grammatical and spelling errors:

Ooops...someone didn't proofread thoroughly enough.

I am more forgiving of grammatical and spelling errors than any other mistake. As I said above, you can have a dozen people read a draft a dozen times and errors can still slip through.

A few spelling errors are natural. A lot is unprofessional. If you don't bother making sure your words are spelled correctly or your sentences follow accepted standards, then what else have you let slip by? A substantively perfect book looks sloppy if it's riddled with spelling and grammatical errors.

Oddly, I love finding spelling and grammatical mistakes in books (assuming they're rare). I feel like I caught the author doing something naughty. Makes for a good laugh.

ExampleHarry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

In Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, in Chapter 1, on Page 10, end of the 8th line (US edition), "sight" is misspelled as "site." I think this was corrected in later editions. (Source:

2. Word Choice/Overused Themes

Every writer has words and even ideas that they overuse. I can hardly write a sentence unless I include the words "just" or "really" in it. I end up erasing these words when I proofread my pieces.

One of the purposes of an editor is to call a writer out on her bad habits. To notice flaws where she doesn't. I see so many books with poor word choice or certain themes repeated over and over. Why? Did the editor miss them? Were there so many errors in the writing that the editor let these slide? If so, why did the book get published? Was the editor being careless because he/she didn't think anyone would buy the book?

Example: Twilight (Yes, it's hard for me to believe that I'm criticizing my beloved Twilight too).

Not even halfway through Twilight, I was sure that if I read one more time about Edward's godlike beauty, my eyes were going to roll right out of my head.

As for word choice, Edward "chuckles." He doesn't laugh, he doesn't giggle, he doesn't guffaw. He chuckles. I hate the word "chuckle." It's an irrational hatred, but every time I saw the word "chuckled" in Twilight (which was quite often), I groaned.

The overuse of certain words and even the belabored descriptions of Edward's appearance was most prominent in the first Twilight book. Why? Did the editors take the books more seriously after Twilight's success and actually concentrate on fixing Stephenie's errors? Or did Stephenie become a better writer? Methinks it's a bit of both.

Twilight is an example of when the editorial lapses distract from the substance of the book. It obviously didn't kill my affection for the series, but there's a serious problem anytime a reader laughs at the book instead of with the book. Hopefully, the underlying story can make up for the surface problems. I saw enough good in Twilight that I mostly overlooked its problems. Other books don't have a strong enough plot to make up for their errors.

3. Consistency Errors

Problems with consistency occur most often with a series. If a series has a complex background, it's easy to forget a detail or two, even if you're the author. This is where the editor comes in - to make sure that everything is consistent. But the bigger the book and the more plot details there are, the harder it is for even the best editor to keep up.

A book riddled with consistency problems is a telltale sign of a poor quality novel. You wonder if the author stopped caring. But I don't mind an error or two. Like spelling mistakes, I tend to giggle and marvel at the fact that I caught something the author missed.

Example: Harry Potter

In the first edition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in the graveyard, James' ghost comes out of Voldemort's wand before Lily. Since the spirits pop out of the wand in reverse order, this would be a problem. James died before Lily. Later editions corrected this mistake.

4. Where'd That Come From?

Sometimes you read a book and something jumps out at you. It might be a writing issue. For example, a story switches from first person to third person point of view for a few pages. Or a substantive issue. A character does something that doesn't character. A substantive "out of the blue" moment can be a sign of genius. A tiny piece of foreshadowing that will make sense once the book is done. Or it could just be a moment where the author wasn't thinking.

Example 1: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

The Harry Potter books are told in third person, from Harry's perspective, with a few exceptions. Other than  the very beginning of the Sorcerer's Stone, the first book is told entirely from Harry's perspective. Except...for the first quidditch match. We switch from the limited third person point of view to the omniscient third person point of view for a few paragraphs (around pg. 139-140 of the UK edition). We're seeing the quidditch match through Ron, Hermione, and Hagrid's eyes as well as Harry's. Completely out of whack with the rest of the book.

I also saw similar perspective problems in a few of Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instrument books.

Example 2: Illusions by Aprilynne Pike

I just finished Illusions on Monday (There! Did you see it? I couldn't help using "just"). I really enjoyed it. It was much better than Spells and almost as good as Wings. But one thing bothered me. A little more than halfway through the book, one of the characters did something that made no sense given what I previously knew about her. It wasn't anything big. In fact, it was probably only a three or four word sentence. But it stuck out. I thought maybe it was a hint for something that would be revealed at the end of the book. Nope. No later reference, no clarification. It made me wonder if Aprilynne forgot something.

(Sorry to be so vague. Any specifics would spoil a big part of the book)

What do you think?

At what point do mistakes take away from the book's quality? Any mistake? Tons of mistakes?

Can you think of any particular editorial mistakes that are either funny or maddening?


  1. Honestly it's a tricky thing. I've read some books with limited flaws that I just couldn't forgive, and I've read some books with glaring flaws that I'm willing to overlook. Also a lot depends on what really bothers you. If you don't like weak heroines or have a real issue with character development, which are my personal pet peeves, those things are going to stand out glaringly.

  2. Great, thought-provoking post! I think it's often the consistency errors that get me the most. Spelling/grammar, while annoying, are pretty minor as long as it's only a few. If it's riddled with spelling & grammar issues, though, I just can't bear to read it - but usually that's not a problem for books that have been proofread thoroughly. Consistency issues, on the other hand, require bigger picture, logical thinking, and it can be glaringly obvious if the author/editor dropped the ball on that. I think those can also disrupt the flow a lot more, because they keep niggling at me.

    I hear you on the repetitive word choice too. Continuing on with the Twilight example - seriously, could Edward's eyes "smoulder" any more frequently? :D

  3. I absolutely love finding spelling mistakes in books, they always make me laugh, but I'm also terrified that if I wrote a book one day (and it managed to get published) that I would have spelling/grammar mistakes & people would laugh at my book. I was at a book signing last month and Maureen Johnson was there & she was talking about how she hates when people find the spelling mistakes in her books and tell her about them because it bugs her that they're there and out in the world. I can usually overlook a lot about a book and with series I usually end up so caught up in the series that I don't even realize what's wrong with consistency problems and the spelling mistakes gives me something more to look for when I re-read a book. =)
    Jess @ The Midnight Bookworm

  4. I love how you have so many examples from Harry Potter ^.^

    I usually don't notice the repetition thing, but this might be because I don't read in a fashion where I remember the exact words used, rather I just remember the feel and what happened. Recently though, I have been listening to audiobooks, and the repetition of an action or description stands out a lot more.

    Great food for thought ^.^

  5. The consistency with harry potter is strange. Didn't they have a clock that they can go back in time with? Why don't they ever use it again? I think plot holes are the worst, I can forgive grammar and things, we're only human, but plot holes are annoying. The book goes through so many hands that someone's got to catch at some point. It can ruin an otherwise great book for me.

  6. I think consistency and spelling are my two biggies. Sometimes I don't notice an inconsistency until it's pointed out to me though, I must admit. Then I'm a bit forgiving because, well, I didn't notice it either! With spelling though, I kind of frown upon even one error in a book. I just feel that that is the easiest area to be flawless in -- even if the rest of the book is horrible, with bad characterization, or whatever, at least it didn't have obvious blunders.

  7. Love the post! It had me smiling so much as I read it.

    I both love and hate oopsies in books.

    I hate them because someone is being paid to catch them and has obviously screwed up somewhere and I love them because I feel so smart when I spot them (yay lol I'm twisted that way ;))

    Great post!

  8. I am most bothered by inconsistency, too much repetition, and flaws in character development. Though too many grammatical or spelling mistakes are also annoying. I guess it depends on the quantity of mistakes and how they affect the book as a whole.

  9. Spelling and grammar mistakes are fine, as long as I'm not spotting them on every page. I must have proofread my novel several times now, and each time I find different mistakes. Nothing is perfect.

    I have a friend who had her book beta-read recently. Not one of us picked up on a mistake that replaced the word 'cake' with 'cat'. I imagine that would make a rather awkward scene... vampire getting ready to blow out the candles on his cat and make a wish.

    Consistency and repitition are probably the big ones for me. But at the end of the day, if the plot is strong then I probably won't notice.

  10. You may like to read some posts over at "It's Fay, Not Fey!", a blog by my friend Jennifer. She writes all about this kind of stuff. Here is one post: about overuse of words/incorrect word usage in The Iron King

  11. Great post! I hate those errors that completely pull me out of the story. I was reading a book the other day where there were several editing mistakes that made me blink (wish I could remember what they were) and yanked me out of the moment. I know when I'm writing "just" is my downfall. I just love that word! (eep)
    Mary @ Book Swarm

  12. I think it all depends on the book. Tbere are some books you just enjoy despite the errors and some you dont. I think its the books that dont do it for me that I break down more. Also i am horrible at spelling and grammer so I tend to forgive those right away. Like you i smile when i find them. I like how you put it, finding the author doing something
    Great post.

  13. Mistakes usually don't bother me too much. I usually just have a laugh whenever I find one because I know authors spend long hours working on manuscripts and sometimes those eyes get tired!

    Fun post!

    My WoW: This Dark Endeavor

    On the Blog: Interview+Giveaway: Justin Gustainis: Hard Spell

  14. I agree! Mistakes are always made but I don't think there is a perfect book out there!

  15. This post makes me giggle. I'm a "just" and "really" gal too.

  16. This is an awesome post Alison! I would say I notice spelling errors more often than anything else, but they usually don't bother me since my spelling and grammar leaves a bit to be desired at times:) However, if the errors are excessive, it definitely takes away from the reading experience. I've also noticed when authors favor certain words or descriptions and use them again and again. I was reading a very well known romance series and in every book, every time the hero got, um, excited, his business would "twitch". This made me giggle just picturing the hero's pants continuously twitching. Super:)

  17. *snorts* I never notice issues with consistency and the story line. All those examples you put up... wow, I can't believe you even saw those. Grammar, on the other hand, makes me wince. I'm a huge grammar freak.

  18. Being the perfectionist that I am, I don't want any mistakes in a book whether it be grammatical errors, consistency errors, etc. But, also being an editor, I know that's impossible.

    I don't mind if books have some errors in them, but they do distract me. I feel like with the fast deadlines in YA books, proofreading has gone by the wayside. I think if editors and publishers pushed deadlines a little further out, then they could take more time to proofread, catching more errors.

    Even though grammatical errors bug me, huge consistency errors detract from a book more. The example you gave with Harry's parents in Goblet of Fire bugged/bugs me to no end. I always have to read a second edition when I get to that point so I can read it the correct way.

    The perspectives don't bother, except in the case of Eclipse and Breaking Dawn. I don't care about Jacob's perspective. I only wanted the story from Bella's or Edward's. I understand why Breaking Dawn was done the way it was, but it still bothered me. In Harry Potter and The Mortal Instruments, I felt the perspectives changed enough that it wasn't coming out of left field. I liked the switch between characters or third-person limited to third-person omniscient in certain areas.

  19. I should not have read all the comments, now i'm just to tired to post mine. I concur with recent post. Depending on spelling and grammar i can over look minors but not when it becomes so obvious that it disrupts the story line. I rate according to how it reads not what i think the author is saying. authors that has a bunch of mishmash in the story line will loose me, i either skip on over it or get fed up and end the reading entirely.

  20. I don't know if its world building or plot holes. But when something in the world of the book is stated but then you are shown something later that contradicts it.

    Like in Forsaken: Demon Trappers by Jana Oliver. Its stated that metal is very rare, expensive and often stolen. But there was a scene later in the book where there were a few cars in a building fully intact and collecting dust. No one had touched them or stolen the metal parts.

    Maybe its only certain types of metal that are rare but it was never specified so that stood out to me. Usually this one thing wouldn't bother me but there were other similar contradictions in the book that brought down the quality of the read for me.

  21. If I'm noticing lots of little issues with spelling or grammar, it's usually because I've already disassociated with the story. Give me an interesting plot and characters who jump off the page, and I'll ignore minor issues...give me flat characters and a weak plot, and I will pick up on every little error.

  22. Honestly, if I like the book I'll be willing to forgive a lot. Grammar errors also make me happy when I notice. :) Sometimes I assume there's an explanation the reader doesn't know about because it wasn't needed for the book. I don't spend much time on errors.

  23. The occasional grammatical or spelling error doesn't bother me too much. I don't get hung up on that stuff, unless it permeates the text. I do enjoy finding minor mistakes in continuity or plot. I remember very many years ago reading Stephen King's The Tommyknockers and finding a mistake. He speaks of someone's teeth chattering -- but this was after her teeth had fallen out! I love finding stuff like that.

  24. I'm a horrible speller, and I have a list of words I get stuck on too, so I have no problems forgiving these things while reading, expect in cases when really simple words are constantly misspelled.

    Example: Woah instead of Whoa.

    Super fun post and comments. Readers are not easily fooled. ;)

  25. I SO love these posts of yours! Another hit :) I don't mind the occasional spelling/grammar/typo issue, but when it starts to command my awareness, then I have a problem. If my internal editor is constantly rearranging sentences or I have only a vague idea of what the sentence is supposed to say, then that's not ok.

    My favorite typo to date was in a Patrick O'Brian book where a character's deep bass voice was described...except they forgot the b!

    Consistency errors and Where'd That Come From issues bother me the most. Typos and the occasional grammar miss are understandable, but not significant consistency errors (minor ones are ok) and out of the blue things. Those just seem like sloppy writing to me.

  26. I sometimes auto-correct when I read so grammatical errors and spellings (if they are minor) are usually forgiven. I go batty with the overused theme/description. The book "Halo" was filled with how blue the love interest eyes are and his chestnut brown hair. I got it the first 10 times. Do you have to remind me in every paragraph?

  27. I tend to pick up errors easily - something in my brain hones them out. It tends to irritate me, as to me it's obvious so why has it got through.
    I can't remember which book it was, but I read one where a character changed gender about three times in a chapter. It was something like "Charlie opened the door and HE smiled at me." then a few sentences later it said "Charlie looked at me and SHE winked."
    it also played with him and her. I was so confused as to what Charlie was actually meant to be!
    Obviously I can understand that mistakes are going to be made, I do some writing and of course I read back and find mistakes, then someone else reads it for me and finds others, but I have to wonder how some of the more obvious ones get left in these books!

    I am really curious as to what you are referring to in Illusions, I've read it and didn't pick it up, so I want to know. If you would - can you comment it on my blog, my comments are approved before posted so I can read it and delete it. Thanks :D

  28. My biggest gripes come with manga. Bleach is my favorite manga, and the manga artist has left so many questions unanswered, he's now considered the world's biggest troll! Plus, he's too willing to use the deus ex machina back door, which is aggravating. Still, he's proved himself a master story-teller and character creator, despite his deficiencies. I forgive, but I hate having so many loose threads.

    I find only minor problems in published novels, but sometimes a lot more with self-published works. I completely support self-publishing. There is a ton of great fiction out there by self-published authors, but there is a ton of crap, too. Stuff that needs major editing, and it's annoying to read.

  29. I the worst with the words "just" and "really." It's horrible.

    I don't generally notice big consistency errors, but I do get a kick out of the grammar stuff.

    Speaking of Twilight errors, have you seen this site?

  30. I have a really hard time with mistakes in books. I do overlook them most of the time, but it's not always easy. My biggest pet peeve is when any time an author (or anyone in any situation, actually) says "literally"--because 9 times out of 10, they are misusing it. "Literally" is an incredibly missed and overused word, and at this point, I wish it would just cease to exist. I was annoyed when Sarah Dessen used it in What Happened to Goodbye, even though she's one of my favorite authors and she didn't use it very often, but I still loved the book. There are other books, however, that I have stopped reading because the word "literally" has been used inappropriately. Overall, though, when I stop reading a book because of how poorly written it is, it's because of a combination of things--words were not used properly (e.g., "literally"), the writing overall was very poor, there were other major flaws, such as POV shifts (from third to first, which I can't stand, unless it's done really well--which generally doesn't happen). Redundancy is another big reason why I'll stop reading something. The Danielle Steel book Sisters is a perfect example--she said the same things over and over and over in just about every chapter, and after a while, I just thought, "I get it! Stop telling me this! I know this character feels this away about this because of what happened--you don't have to tell me this multiple times within a chapter, or in every chapter." I can't remember the name of the book I was reading, but there was one book where I didn't make it past the first chapter, because when the author wrote the dialogue, it looked like this: I go, "Shut up!" I know in real life, when people tell a story, they will say, "So I go, 'Shut up!' and he goes, 'No, I'm serious!'," but that's not proper English, so it should never be written that way in a novel. I refused to finish the book, and actually refuse to read anything else by that author as a result. I'm also that way about people writing "should/could/would of" instead of "should've/could've/would've." That is my other major grammar pet peeve, and if I see someone do that, I won't finish reading what they've written.

    I might be pickier than some, though, considering I majored in creative writing and also took editing and grammar classes in college. That kind of thing can change your perspective.

    Also, in regard to you spelling something wrong to a client: I once misspelled the name of the city I and a customer of mine live in when I responded to an email. The customer never said anything, so I don't think she even noticed, but I should've caught that before I sent it out. :)

  31. Love this post! I wish I could compare book errors to blooper reels, but it doesn't really work that way for me. Here's my thing - I can overlook the occasional spelling or grammar snafu, but consistency tends to bug me because I feel it distracts from the story.

  32. I think you mentioned the major ones but I think of those mentioned, some detract from quality much more than others.

    A character acting out of character or inconsistencies in the plotline are the worst mistakes because, in my opinion, they cause the most confusion. They other mistakes are really just annoying.

  33. I don't mind when the mistakes are few. In fact, I kind of enjoy picking out consistency errors and the like! I don't believe I've ever read a book that was absolutely riddled with mistakes though; and I'm sure I would not enjoy it. Out of your list, I feel like overuse of words/phrases is the worst offender for me. It just gets on my nerves! But I'm not entirely sure how much of these could be considered all the author's fault. I kind of figured that it's the editor's job to pick up on most of these things.

  34. Oh, the Wand Order mistake in HP 4! My edition doesn't have that mistake, but it does seem like a pretty major one. I also remember thinking that Edward 'chuckled' a lot. Don't care for the word, either.

    There are a few grammar mistakes or a bit of word overuse in most books, as you said, but I also think it's the editor's job more than the author's to find and correct these. Interesting post-- thanks for sharing! :)

  35. Thanks for the comment, I can see what you mean, it is a bit of a random line, I must have glazed over it when I read it, I'll look out for it when i re-read it. I'm curious now. :D
    Thanks again :D

  36. I love all of the examples from the Harry Potter books!

    I can't remember which book it is in, but my favorite typo from the series involves a certain wayward Weasley being referred to as "Perry" :)

  37. I'm another that overuses 'just'! What is it about that word? The English teacher in me says that its a hedging word, so it shows that we want to soften/moderate our opinions.

    Regarding Twilight, I had to consider 'marble-skinned' and 'perfumed breath' to be like modern-day Homeric epithets, otherwise my annoyance would never have allowed me to finish the book.

  38. I can't stand grammatical errors, but I can live with it if it's minor. I always struggle with commas and sometimes end up saying things backward. However, a huge pet-peeve: saying Me and so-so. I see it in movies, tv shows and books. Apparently, many editors today talk this way since characters do in countless books. It drives me nuts!! We should always put another person before us in a sentence. I'm reading a book now that's has this subject error all over the place. I want to throw the book across the room. I asked Grammar Girl about it and she said that certain things can change over the years, but not subjects. I would love
    to do a post on it. When writers and editors get it right in books, I cheer!

    I agree with you on descriptions and dialogue tag description. A good said, laughed or explained is good enough :)

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