Prior to my memoir going to press, my hybrid publisher forwarded me “first pages.” As a first-time author, I was unaware of such a thing, a PDF file of how my finished book would look. First pages was essentially a last call, an opportunity to use a phone-a-friend lifeline to correct errors missed in copyediting or proofreading, and to check that formatting, visual elements, and breaks were correct before publication. I also saw first pages as an opportunity to tighten my writing. And that meant unintentional changes to meanings of some sentences.
I recently read a post written by Dalya Alberge for The Guardian. The author cites a study that says that Hemingway was exacting about every detail of his writing. “In a letter to the associate editor of Cosmopolitan, Hemingway warned against making any changes to his story, “After the Storm.”
“It is understood if you publish it there are to be no changes in text or title – no additions – no cuts. Cannot submit it on any other basis. Don’t let anybody write me that it is very short. I know it is and if it could be any shorter I would make it shorter. It is as good and complete a story as I can write or I wouldn’t send it to you or to anybody else. And I don’t sell them by the yard or the word because I will cut out a thousand words to make one word important.”
I thought about Hemingway’s attempt at being exacting with his work, and how I tried to be, too, with my first pages, striving for perfection and setting a high bar for myself to not give any reader a reason to find fault with my work. Finding fault with my work was finding fault with me, and as a debut author, I wanted to represent myself as best I could. Why wouldn’t an author want extra kudos for flawless, error-free work?
When I read this file, it was as if I was reading my book for the first time. The manuscript was no longer in a Word document but formatted as how it would look when published. Seeing my book in a new perspective made me question the writing, looking beyond any slight typographical or formatting errors. Was I using too many adjectives and adverbs? Would the reader really care about my house on Carlisle being newer and bigger or just that we had moved? Should I delete “newer” and “bigger?”
Alberge’s post also mentions the study of Hemingway’s short story, “A Way You’ll Never Be.” Hemingway originally wrote, “But I must insist that you will never gather a sufficient supply of these insects for a day’s fishing by pursuing them with your hands or trying to hit them with a hat.”
Though I can’t claim my own bat-hat error, I can relate to how changes in words can alter a sentence’s meaning.
When I deleted the words “bigger, newer,” from “house on Carlisle” on my first pages, my intended meaning to convey optimism and openness in finding a sense of place with home was deleted too, altering the description of setting in the paragraph. Would the reader know any differently? Probably not. But in hindsight, because I relied on details of settings to tell my story, I should not have viewed the sentence as something that needed correction, but rather viewed it without fault or error.
My publisher did advise me that errors can happen, though work is copyedited, proofread and reviewed many times. I’m glad I had a chance to make a final call on my work. As with Hemingway, his editors or typesetters were likely to blame for the bat-hat error. Because, well, Hemingway was just too exact with his words to have made this error.
I’m more careful now about correcting that which I consider tightening because sometimes correcting a sentence by deleting one word or changing one letter can make all the difference to an intention.