The point of a poster is to grab your attention, make you think you want more and (implicitly or explicitly) tell you where to get it. Usually, that means a vivid image. Most posters are glimpsed, rather than studied, so the written information should be kept to a minimum. Most, but not all. When I was mis-spending part of my youth in London, there was a poster on the wall of South Kensington tube station, opposite the Piccadilly Line platform that was almost entirely filled with text in a legible but small font. The publicist had realised that, having hurried down the escalators and through the tunnels, the passengers would have an average of three minutes waiting on the platform, with nothing to do but stare. The poster, from Borshtch ‘n’ Tears gave them something entertaining to stare at. Borshtch ‘n’ Tears was (and still is) a Russian restaurant in Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge – within walking distance of South Kensington underground. The poster, whilst saying something about the cuisine, used jokes and puns to keep you reading – for example, crediting the proprietor with lifting the Rouble out of trouble. On one line, there was a handwritten editorial correction, with a note “our poof reader is on holiday”.
I am given to using this joke from time to time, but I’ve found that it needs a gloss to point out that it is a joke, otherwise it is seen to be an example of Muphry’s Law. Muphry’s Law (courtesy of David Marsh, author of For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man’s Quest for Grammatical Perfection) is the editorial application of the better-known Murphy’s Law, and says that “Anything criticising editing or proofreading will contain an error of some kind.”
Proofreading is a difficult process; the human brain is very tolerant of errors, so we read what we expect to read. More so if we’ve written it. It’s also a recursive process; you can read a piece and correct the errors you find, and then, on re-reading, find more errors. Currently, in addition to the author’s process, we have three levels of error-trapping in our publishing process. Even then, it’s not perfect. Imagine that we have a 90% success rate in finding errors. (I don’t know what the actual figure is, since it’s very difficult to count the errors we don’t find.) So, if there are 100 errors in the piece, on our first approach we’ll find nine out of every ten – so we’ll leave ten behind. On our second pass, we’ll pick nine of the remaining ten, leaving one which (90% of the time) we’ll get on the third pass. Result: perfection. However, if there are 1000 errors at the start, we’ll get 900 the first time through, 90 the second then after that third pass, we’ll find nine errors and leave one behind.
The message here is that the more errors there are in a manuscript when it reaches the publisher, the more likely it is that some will persist in the final version. Clearly the author has the major part to play in getting the text right at the start, but, as I’ve said, it isn’t easy. One of the best strategies we’ve found is for the author to get a group together to read the script out-loud, specifically with the intention of finding the errors. The more people there are involved, the better chance there is that someone will stumble over the errors. There is a further advantage that even if you don’t find any errors, it’s fun! Remember, you can never have too much poofreading.