Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos, and What You Can Do About It
by Daniel VanDyke
Writers crave the zone, where time slips away and our minds become fully occupied with the flow of our writing as an article or story takes shape. It’s an amazing feeling, and a symptom of the intense behind-the-scenes mental complexity involved in professional writing.
Unfortunately, this complexity (and the human mind’s distaste for it) is the same reason why spotting and correcting our own typos is so incredibly difficult, even when dealing with high-priority work like client pieces, resumes, or professional samples.
The human brain is ruthlessly efficient—it has to be. Your eyes alone take in enough information to drown your conscious mind in stimuli. So, you center your focus on a tiny flickering spotlight of attention and let everything else fade into the periphery. The same goes for the smell of your office, the feeling of your clothes on your skin, and the rhythm of your breathing. Without conscious effort, the mind ignores the mundane and extraneous to help you focus on whatever task is at hand.
So, when we go back to proofread our own work, we naturally encounter a problem. As much as we can look at words and punctuation, we can’t force ourselves to forget what we wrote or the complex scaffolding of meaning that we mentally constructed behind it. Instead of processing the text as written (difficult and boring), the mind jumps ahead along that mental scaffold, plugging in the remembered meaning and skipping over mistakes that would absolutely leap off the page for anyone else.
You don’t see the typos because your brain desperately wants to cheat and remember what you wrote instead of painstakingly reading and evaluating those stale words flickering on your screen.
What Can You Do About It?
- The first approach (and the best) is to work with a partner. Get a second proofreader who’s able to read the text for the first time.
- Failing this, try to put time and space between you and the words. Take a break, read something else, go for a walk, or work on a different project. The longer you can wait, the more obvious the errors will be.
- Try two-stage proofreading. First, read the article for only meaning and flow. Then start over and proofread, focusing only on words, punctuation, and sentence structure—not the meaning. By breaking up the levels of revision, you ask your mind to deal with less, which can improve clarity and focus.
- Change the font, text size, color, and/or print it out. By making the work visually unfamiliar you may find you are better able to identify mistakes—especially around the left and right edges of each page.
- Read it out. For high priority pieces, read each word slowly and carefully out loud or load the text into a text-to-speech generator. This gives your mind a second sense to work with can make both punctuation errors and typos painfully apparent.
- Practice. Proofreading is a skill that can be cultivated over time. Intentionally work on evaluating your work as well as that of others, building good habits and improving your proofreading performance over time.