Writers beware – sod’s law exists

Part of my first job on leaving Uni was in the quality assurance section of a scientific organisation.  Believe it or not, before the late 1970s little of it existed.  After all everyone was doing their best so the data and reports would be fine wouldn’t they?  Answer, no.  Because if nothing else Sod’s Law operates. i.e. whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.  And one of the problems back then was that nobody understood what could go wrong – it was of course, anything and everything.  So after a few well published cases, which I won’t go into, the need for a formal system of quality assurance was established.

For me this involved, amongst other things the checking of scientific reports, both for internal consistency and against the “raw data”.  At first my involvement, essentially pointing out where people had made errors was resented.  I mean, who was I to tell a senior scientist they had made mistakes.  And this wasn’t just the odd typo, whole lines of data were transposed, decimal points were in the wrong place, thing disappeared from the records only to appear elsewhere.  I could go on.  These didn’t always affect the scientific outcomes, but occasionally they could and this was important work.  What’s more it’s not as if you could predict when or where a major error might occur.

Once people understood that it wasn’t personal and I could show them exactly what had happened along with the potential impact of what I found attitudes changed.  Yes, at first there was disbelief that they could have possibly made such mistakes.  However, everyone does, it’s human nature.  The brain sees what it expects to see and switches things back, adds what’s missing or corrects the errors for you.   When that was understood there was universal relief that those performing the checking function were there.  As I said above, everyone wants to do the best job they can and with our help that got even better.

Now for the fiction writer mistakes are hardly life or death, but we sure don’t want them.  At best they’re embarrassing and worst, if there are too many (and what is too many?) they’ll put people off ever reading our work again.  My latest book is a case in point.  I had of course edited and edited again and again myself.  I had run spell check etc.,  had it professionally proof read, I had corrected the text.  However, when I sent it out to early readers still a string of typos and errors came back, missing quotation marks, missing full stops, the ‘of’ instead of ‘off’.  In a 100,00 word book it wasn’t that many, but from my point of view it could have been potentially embarrassing, or worse.

Eventually I pressed the publish button and guess what?  Within days someone let me know that in the dedication there were two “its” and in both cases the apostrophe was wrong i.e. there was one where there shouldn’t have been and not one where they should.  Everything had been checked, but we’d skipped the dedication, I mean it’s only a few lines.  It just goes to show Sods Law does operate.  I know as soon as I press publish I will find another typo.  The moral of my story?  First, you can never check your own work.  As I’ve said the human brain is so good at seeing what ought to be there rather than what is actually there.  Second, there can never be too much checking by too many people.  Use those early, pre-launch readers.  Some people will always find things others have missed.

Author: Ian Martyn

Science Fiction Writer

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6 thoughts on “Writers beware – sod’s law exists”

  1. Absolutely true. I enjoyed this post, and take it as a salutory warning. I give my final copy to a relative who has the eye of the proverbial hawk and a knowledge of grammar and presentation on a par with the University of Oxford Style Guide. Not a pleasant experience, generally. Relatives can really get at a person.

  2. Well, that blog hit the sore spot in more than one way. As a writer of documents, scientific papers and protocols and as an editor and reviewer of the same. I have always worshipped at the shrine of Sod in the hope (forlorn) that he (or she) would look kindly on my efforts and turn the other way. No such luck. It does not matter how many times you, your editors, your friends etc. review your work there will always be errors, typos and grammatical mistakes. It is not helped, in English, that we operate with at least two forms of the language, UK and US, but there are many other forms, the most pernicious being Indian English. Ask an Indian author to get material edited by a native English speaker, and they will point out (adamantly) that they are native English speakers. Another problem remains the use of the Oxford comma and other punctuation marks which will continue to dog authors until the end of time. In the end one has to accept that Sod is out there to get you, and smile. However on the plus side there is always the challenge of finding something that everyone has missed in a printed work; however I would never be so unkind as to point it out to the author who has tried so hard, I would just leave it unsaidlike the ‘X’ on a treasure map.

    1. John, good to hear from you. Yes, Sod is definitely out there. Spelling and punctuation I still seem to grapple with unsuccessfully. As used to appear with annoying regularity on my school reports – could do better. Mind you if I want to cheer myself up all I have to do is watch Match of the Day and other football commentary programs with their ‘They was great’ and ‘He were good.’ etc. etc.

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