Will Worsley

Typo Math: Why You Can’t Kill All the Typos

When I was putting the finishing touches on my first novel, Investing in Vain, it was a hard struggle to eliminate all the typos. Despite all the times I read through my manuscript, I invariably discovered a couple more errors on the next pass.

I was an editor at a major publishing house once upon a time. I have two degrees in English, and I’m a stickler when it comes to spelling and punctuation. How did these glitches manage to escape my eagle eye? Were they reproducing themselves while I wasn’t looking? Was I proofreading in vain?

No, most of my problem was simple math. The number of potential typos in a typical novel is astronomical. My draft of 74,000 words contained about 439,000 characters, including spaces between words. Each of those characters presented an opportunity—actually, many opportunities—for me to screw up.

How many? If you only count the 26 letters in the alphabet plus one for a blank space, there are 27 chances per character for a typo to sneak in. With 27 keys at my fumbling fingers, I can type four characters 27^4, or 531,441 different ways (never mind upper and lower case). For my entire novel, the number of potential bugs was 27^439,000. That’s probably more than all the atoms in the universe.

I’d gladly tell you the exact number, but I can’t. Not even an Excel spreadsheet can count higher than 27^215 (which comes to more than 5 followed by 307 zeros). In other words, Excel can’t calculate the number of typos possible on even a single page of a manuscript.

That’s too depressing, so let’s forget characters and focus on words. There’s no comfort there either. If 99.99% of the words in a 74,000-word novel are error-free, eight typos will be still be left to horrify readers. That’s typo math. The odds for achieving perfection are grim. You’re more likely to win the lottery than catch all your goofs.

What could make proofreading even harder? Well, there’s your brain. It’s conspiring against you too. The more times you’ve read your work the more your eyes tend to see what ought to be on the page, rather than the howlers that lurk between the lines. After enough passes, you can recite your entire novel from memory but can’t see the little buggers at all. You’ve gone typo-blind.

When you do the typo math, it’s clear that a flawless draft is unattainable. For a perfectionist, that’s liberating–in a perverse, defeatist sort of way. We know we’re up against impossible odds, so we should feel better. I know I do.