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Why We Can't Spot Proofreading Errors and Six Things You Can Do About It


There are few things more annoying to a writer than finding errors in a manuscript after final checks have supposed to have been done.

Actually, ‘mortifying’ might be a better word, as the work has often been published, marketed and sold to readers before some of those errors are detected. That means that money has changed hands; readers have made a purchase and rightly expect a fully professional product: typos, spelling errors, grammar mistakes, punctuation slip-ups, and so on, all act to distract readers at a most basic level, disrupting and disappointing the readers’ expectations.

The ‘industry norm’ is about one error for every eight to ten thousand words, but any errors at all are unacceptable. They act against the whole thrust of fiction by undermining reader attention at its most fundamental level, jumping readers out of stories mechanically.

But despite the fact that you have repeatedly combed for errors, and by the time you publish are absolutely certain that not a single misplaced apostrophe or any other discrepancy has survived, the first thing your readers notice isn't your beautifully engineered story or your profoundly important message, it's the misspelled word in Chapter Six.

Errors are horrible saboteurs, destroying the smoothness of your product and providing ammunition for critics. Even more frustratingly, time and time again the things that you miss are the things you know well - it’s the use of an apostrophe, or a comma before quotation marks in dialogue, or the repetition of the word ‘the’ in a sentence you have read a hundred times.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield in the UK suggest that we miss these things not because we are stupid but because the conveyance of meaning through texts is an advanced function of human beings. Turning letters into words and words into sentences is something that the brain strives to put on automatic so that it can concentrate on putting together the complexities of the meaning behind or within the words.

Reading a text isn’t a mechanical thing for human beings - we’re experiencing the thing as a whole, rather than ticking off each word like a computer. Working with the supreme intangible, Meaning, our minds leap to conclusions in order to extract significance. We are not as interested in the mechanics.

When we're reading other peoples' work, we are slower: we read each part more carefully because we don’t yet know what the overall meaning of the thing is; but when we read our own stuff, we jump over words because we already have the fullness of meaning that the text contains. The reason we don't see our own mistakes is because what we see in front of us is overlaid by what we have in our heads already.

We tend to think of our minds as advanced computers. They should be able to do the tasks that a computer can do, we think, but better. But mental activity is not entirely mechanical like a machine - it is partly imaginative, partly instinctive. We overlook mechanical details because we are thinking at a higher level than a machine.

Other readers are more likely to pick up on our errors because they have never read something before and on an unfamiliar journey we pay more attention rather than imagining the final destination.

You may have had the experience of typing something without looking at the screen and experiencing a very small, very subtle sensation of ‘glitch’ in your mind before you are even consciously aware that you have made a mistake. You look up and there it is - you’ve slightly mistyped something. That segment of typing was a fresh journey, a route upon which your mind was paying attention, observing even small departures from the norm. But read over that same passage time and time again and it becomes old, grooved-in, familiar. We see that passage as a piece of Meaning, and that’s when mechanical details get missed.

When you're proof reading, you are trying to trick yourself. You are trying to fool your eyes and mind into thinking that this is a new journey.

So what should you do to help to trick your mind?

1. Put your work into a new format - new font, even new colour. Make it as strange to your eyes as you can.

A piece of writing glowing at you in a florid, pink font is likely to seem entirely odd and therefore requiring more attention.

2. Read it backwards, sentence by sentence.

This disconnects the flow of your mind trying to anticipate the meaning that it knows is coming 'because it has seen it before'. It forces you to read more mechanically.

Imagine walking to work - but backwards. Every step would need to be measured with lots of looking over your shoulder. The whole journey would be a new adventure, even though the streets you would walk would be familiar to you. You're more likely to notice potholes and changes of level than you would be if you were walking forward.

3. Take plenty of breaks.

Divide the work into small sections and plan to do something else between those sections. If you go off to check emails or social media or something between each section, your mind returns to the text refreshed and is less likely to get ‘stuck in the rut’ of predicting what comes next.

4. Do the proofreading in a different place.

Take the work to a café or library or somewhere slightly unfamiliar. Your senses will be just that much on higher alert than they would be if you sat in your normal chair.

5. Do the proofreading at a different time.

If possible, schedule the proofreading to be done at a much later time than you did the writing. The intervening days, weeks, or even months mean that, when you come back to read it again, it has some attributes of ‘newness’ about it.

6. Read your work aloud.

This is one of the most effective methods. Reading something aloud involves more mechanics - you have to be slower and more careful, especially if you are able to read it aloud to someone who is actually listening. If the other person has a copy of the text in front of them and can follow you along, errors leap off the page immediately.

The whole process of proofreading is a matter of seeing what is there rather than what you think is there. Anything that pulls you back from supposition, anticipation, ‘dubbing in’, ‘filling in the gaps’ and so on and instead makes you alert to what is actually on the page in front of you is going to be worthwhile in this endeavour.

More on this soon.

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