Have you ever written a blog, proofread it, and posted it—only for someone to point out a glaring typo? Or carefully checked an essay for errors only for it to come back covered in red pen? In other words, why do we seem incapable of noticing typos in our own work? Even the best writers and editors are culprits of missing obvious typos from time to time. So, why can’t we spot our own typos?
Well, there’s a good reason for it. As explained by psychologist Tom Stafford at the University of Sheffield, our brains are actually wired to work this way. When we write, our brains are trying to convey meaning, which is a high-level function. High-level functions rely on a process called generalisation in our brains. This is an automatic, subconscious process that enables us to make quick decisions. If you’re familiar with the work of Daniel Kahneman, this is system 1, and it’s vital in our daily lives.
When we’re writing, the process of generalisation means that our brains pay more attention to the big picture—the message—and less attention to the smaller details—words and letters. The same thing happens when we’re reading. Our brains take general information and match it to our expectations. Im srue yvoue seen a snecntee werhe the ltetres are in the wnorg oderr hveoewr yuor biarn can sltil ustdenarnd the mneaing, rgiht? As long as the first and last letter are in the right place, our brains can interpret the meaning to understand the sentence using generalisation.
This is a very clever process, because it saves us time and brain power—reserving the slow, rational, and conscious part of our thinking (system 2) for more important matters. However, this process can be troublesome when it comes to proofreading our own work. You see, when we read our own work back, we already know the meaning we’re intending to deliver, so we have an expectation. Our brains fill in the missing information, correct the incorrect information, and give us the meaning we expect to see. This means we don’t spot our errors, because our brains have autocorrected them out.
Knowing this, it’s easy to see why other people can instantly spot our errors. They’re reading the content fresh for the first time, so they don’t have an intended meaning or expectation already set in their mind. For this reason, it’s always better to ask somebody else to proofread your work—whether it’s an experienced proofreader or just a different set of eyes. Somebody who hasn’t read the work before.
If getting a proofreader isn’t an option, there are several ways to “hack” your mind to proofread more effectively. One tip of the trade is to make the writing look unfamiliar to you by changing the format, font, size, and colour. This tricks your brain into thinking you’re reading something new. Another option is leaving the document for two weeks, then coming back to it with fresher eyes when your brain has forgotten the exact words you used. Alternatively, try reading the document out loud to yourself, slowly and carefully focusing on each word.
A final option is to use a proofreading tool such as Word’s spellchecker or Grammarly. While these tools are fallible, both in suggesting incorrect changes and missing errors, they’re better than nothing and can help you spot glaring mistakes. We’ll look at these tools in more depth in a future article.
Overall, you might find that a combination of these methods helps you reduce the number of typos you miss. However, the important point here is that nobody is safe from their own typos. Even proofreaders. So the next time someone points out a heinous typo in your Tweet, don’t smack yourself on the head for your folly—tell them about the process of generalisation and remember how clever your brain is.