How to recover from a heartbreaking writing mistake
Six years ago, I misspelled a dead girl’s last name in the newspaper. The regret still stings.
At the time, I was a crime reporter for The Herald in Rock Hill, S.C. A recent high school graduate and her friends had been in a terrible car accident after smoking pot and drinking while driving. The four teens were thrown from the car after it helicoptered on its grille and slammed into five trees.
Only one died. Her.
I knew what to do. I spoke to the cops to get information about the accident. I called friends and relatives to see if any would speak with me on record (only one did). I called the coroner to confirm the victim’s name and age.
In South Carolina, the coroner typically releases the identity of fatality victims. Police won’t do it unless the coroner gives permission. But the coroner is busy identifying victims, tagging bodies, performing autopsies. Responding to the press is not a priority.
I had to wait.
That was a long day. I didn’t hear back from the coroner until 9:30 p.m. I clocked a 14-hour work day - easy - without a single break (not even for food).
I was exhausted and maybe a little delirious. The coroner told me the name. I repeated it to her and even spelled it out. She confirmed I was right. I put the name in the story, sent it to my editor and went to bed. Mission accomplished.
The next morning, I woke up to angry emails. Turns out, I incorrectly spelled the girl’s last name. People who knew her said I desecrated her memory. One woman left a message on my newsroom voicemail accusing me of bringing more pain to the family. Others said I was a hack reporter.
The guilt was palpable. I wanted to crawl into a hole. I couldn’t. I had to fix it. I had to recover. And I had to move on and write again.
Here’s what that experience taught me (and can teach you) about dealing with your writing mistakes.
Acknowledge the wrong. Then, apologize.
You did wrong. Intentional or not, something you wrote was incorrect: A misspelled word. A factual error. An emotional rant you now regret.
Whatever it is, own it. Then, apologize.
As soon as I became aware of my spelling snafu, I realized what happened. As she spelled the victim’s name, the coroner said “S.” I heard “F.” Even when I repeated it back to her, I said “F” and she must’ve heard “S.” Earlier in the day when I spoke to someone who knew the girl, she told me the correct last name. I didn’t bother to corroborate what this person told me or question the coroner about the discrepancy.
I could’ve explained this to every person who blasted me for the blunder. I didn’t. They didn’t care about my excuses or exhaustion.
All that mattered was that the wrong name of a girl who died just a day earlier would forever be memorialized in print. I had to own the mistake, apologize to anyone who took offense and figure out a way to fix it.
Fix what you can as soon as you can
Don’t let errors linger. When I realized the victim’s name was wrong, I corrected it on the newspaper’s website.
The benefit of the internet is that things update immediately. If you make a mistake, you can fix it in real-time. Problem is, in this age of internet trolls, screenshots and wayback machines, it’s hard to cover your mistakes without someone taking notice.
It’s even worse when the mistake happens in print. There is no delete button. Print is forever. The mistake will always be there, and someone will always see it.
That leads to my next point.
Don’t hide. Fess up.
I had to write a correction that appeared in the next day’s paper. I left a message on the family’s voicemail profusely apologizing for the error. I never heard back.
As humiliating as it was, I had to eat crow, stuff it down and tell the truth without getting defensive.
A printed correction may not apply to you. But it’s very possible someone will angrily confront you about something you’ve written. If they’re right, deal with it, be transparent and try to make amends.
Move on, learn from the burn and write again
This can be the hardest part, but it may be the most important. Learn from the error and keep it moving.
For reporters, there’s little time to dwell on mistakes. The next story is coming and the deadline is looming. They’ve got to pick themselves up and write again, even if the mistake happened that same day.
You should do the same.
You may never forget your mistake (obviously, I haven’t), but you can’t let it paralyze you.
Your confidence will take a hit. You may question whether you’re a good writer or chose the right career path. You may be tempted to give up.
Instead of letting your mistake defeat and define you, allow it fuel you. It’s a lesson. If the mistake is bad enough, chances are you’ll never do it again. You’ll also develop tougher skin and better coping skills so that when mistakes happen again (they will; you’re human), you don’t collapse in a puddle of woe.
I recently heard a pastor say that winning doesn’t teach you anything. You learn most from your losses.
The misspelling error was not the end of the world or my journalism career. I wrote for newspapers for another four years after that.
I never misspelled a dead girl’s last name again.
Get more writing tips like these on the Jon Writes Brand Blog.