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 biological reason for this—our brains are wired not to spot our own typos. Psychologist Tom Stafford from the University of Sheffield explains that when we write, our brains try to convey meaning. This high-level function relies on a brain process called generalisation—an automatic, subconscious, and vital process that enables us to make quick decisions in our daily lives. If you’re familiar with the work of Daniel Kahneman, this is system 1.
When we write, this generalisation process means that our brains pay more attention to the big picture—the message and meaning—and less attention to the small details—the 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 mnid can siltl udstenarnd the mneaing, rgiht? As long as the first and last letter are in the right place, our brain can interpret the meaning to understand the sentence because of generalisation.
This clever process saves us time and brain power, reserving the slow, rational, conscious part of our mind (Kahneman’s system 2) for more important matters. However, it causes trouble when we try to proofread our own writing. When we read our own work back, we already know the meaning we’re intending to convey, 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 typos and errors because our brain has 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 in their mind. This is why it’s always better to ask somebody else to proofread your work, whether it’s an experienced proofreader or a different set of eyes.
If getting a proofreader isn’t an option, you can “hack” your mind to proofread more effectively:
- One tip of the trade is to make the writing look unfamiliar 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 with fresh 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. These tools are fallible and miss errors, but they’re better than nothing.
You might find that a combination of these methods helps you reduce the number of typos you miss. However, the important point is that nobody is safe from their own typos. Even proofreaders or editors like me. So, the next time someone points out a heinous typo in your Quora answer, don’t smack yourself on the head for your folly—tell them about generalisation and remember how clever your brain is.