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Mistakes in big type make all the rest that we do seem small

Mark Twain said, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning."

But if you write headlines for a living, printing the almost right word instead of the right word can make you wish you'd been struck by lightning.

That happened to us on the copy desk late Friday night _ and left many readers wondering about our competence on Saturday morning _ when we printed Never to late to graduate, woman shows.

"To" instead of "too," in one of the largest type sizes we use.

Some readers were not amused: "It's knot two late too higher a proofreader," one wrote.

Ouch!

I supervise the group of copy editors who put together some of the regional editions of the Times. While I didn't write the "to vs. too" headline, I could have.

Reporters expound on stories. Copy editors distill stories, writing headlines, the smaller subheads under headlines and captions for photos. So, while a reporter uses thousands of words to describe an event, copy editors sometimes will get just three or four.

Some people will think: "How hard can that be? You only need four words." Tell me what you did yesterday, using only four words. And make it accurate, informative and engaging. Unless you "Jumped out of airplane" or some such thing, you probably can't without a lot of effort.

Copy editors go through that exercise with a couple of dozen stories a night, along with checking out stories for grammar, spelling or organizational problems. They do all that with the added pressure of trying to give reporters as much time as possible to report and production people and drivers enough time to get newspapers on our readers' doorsteps.

At newspapers, there's always a push and pull for time. Our product has a very short shelf life, so we want to make it as immediate as possible. But we still need to allow enough time to print several hundred thousand copies and distribute them across a vast area.

Amid that push and pull is often where the trouble starts for copy editors. In our rush to get into print, what at first glance appears okay can come back to bite us. Some of our foibles are famous: Red tape holds up new bridge; Include your children when baking cookies; Something went wrong in jet crash, experts say.

And if somewhere far into a story a reporter makes a mistake _ say typing a "to" instead of a "too" _ few people will notice.

But when copy editors make mistakes, we do it on a grand scale _ Iraqi head seeks arms, Man shoots neighbor with machete, Squad helps dog bite victim, Teacher strikes idle kids. Everybody remembers the Dewey defeats Truman headline, but who remembers the story?

None of my work has been held up to national ridicule by Jay Leno on the Tonight Show _ yet. But every time he runs through the latest batch of my peers' work, I get a bad feeling that I'll be next.

Many of the readers who wrote to point out our headline mistake asked if our proofreaders had fallen asleep on the job. Actually, like most newspapers today, we don't have designated proofreaders. Copy editors do the bulk of the proofreading, but pretty much everyone in the building helps. Reporters, photographers, clerks, and the people running the presses all have called me about questionable headlines.

Occasionally _ very rarely, I hope _ mistakes like the one last week slip through. There is, of course, no excuse.

But I can take comfort in knowing that we're not the first crew at a newspaper to let down our guard.

From my desk I can see a row of historic front pages, proclaiming the end of World War II and the Vietnam War and other momentous events. There's one from April 16, 1912, with a banner headline proclaiming: Titantic sinks with 1,530 souls aboard.

Our error was "to bad," but that writer's was titanic.

_ Greg Joyce is a regional news editor at the St. Petersburg Times. He can be reached at joycesptimes.com.

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