Thursday, August 28, 2014

What’s Up With That: Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos

Republished from


Article edited in MS Word, tracking changes
 You have finally finished writing your article. You’ve sweat over your choice of words and agonized about the best way to arrange them to effectively get your point across. You comb for errors, and by the time you publish you are absolutely certain that not a single typo survived. But, the first thing your readers notice isn’t your carefully crafted message, it’s the misspelled word in the fourth sentence.

Typos suck. They are saboteurs, undermining your intent, causing your resume to land in the “pass” pile, or providing sustenance for an army of pedantic critics. Frustratingly, they are usually words you know how to spell, but somehow skimmed over in your rounds of editing. If we are our own harshest critics, why do we miss those annoying little details? 

The reason typos get through isn’t because we’re stupid or careless, it’s because what we’re doing is actually very smart, explains psychologist Tom Stafford, who studies typos of the University of Sheffield in the UK. “When you’re writing, you’re trying to convey meaning. It’s a very high level task,” he said.

As with all high level tasks, your brain generalizes simple, component parts (like turning letters into words and words into sentences) so it can focus on more complex tasks (like combining sentences into complex ideas). “We don’t catch every detail, we’re not like computers or NSA databases,” said Stafford. “Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.” When we’re reading other peoples’ work, this helps us arrive at meaning faster by using less brain power. When we’re proof reading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. The reason we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.

This can be something as trivial as transposing the letters in “the” to “hte,” or something as significant as omitting the core explanation of your article. In fact, I made both of these mistakes when I wrote this story. The first was a misspelling in a sentence that my editor had to read aloud for me before I saw it for myself. The second mistake was leaving out the entire preceding paragraph that explains why we miss our own typos.

Generalization is the hallmark of all higher-level brain functions. It’s similar to how our brains build maps of familiar places, compiling the sights, smells, and feel of a route. That mental map frees your brain up to think about other things. Sometimes this works against you, like when you accidentally drive to work on your way to a barbecue, because the route to your friend’s house includes a section of your daily commute. We can become blind to details because our brain is operating on instinct. By the time you proof read your own work, your brain already knows the destination.

This explains why your readers are more likely to pick up on your errors. Even if you are using words and concepts that they are also familiar with, their brains are on this journey for the first time, so they are paying more attention to the details along the way and not anticipating the final destination.

But even if familiarization handicaps your ability to pick out mistakes in the long run, we’re actually pretty awesome at catching ourselves in the act. (According to Microsoft, backspace is the third-most used button on the keyboard.) In fact, touch typists—people who can type without looking at their fingers—know they’ve made a mistake even before it shows up on the screen. Their brain is so used to turning thoughts into letters that it alerts them when they make even minor mistakes, like hitting the wrong key or transposing two characters. In a study published earlier this year, Stafford and a colleague covered both the screen and keyboard of typists and monitored their word rate. These “blind” typists slowed down their word rate just before they made a mistake.

Touch typists are working off a subconscious map of the keyboard. As they type, their brains are instinctually preparing for their next move. “But, there’s a lag between the signal to hit the key and the actual hitting of the key,” Stafford said. In that split second, your brain has time to run the signal it sent your finger through a simulation telling it what the correct response will feel like. When it senses an error, it sends a signal to the fingers, slowing them down so they have more time to adjust.

As any typist knows, hitting keys happens too fast to divert a finger when it’s in the process of making a mistake. But, Stafford says this evolved from the same mental mechanism that helped our ancestors’ brains make micro adjustments when they were throwing spears.

Unfortunately, that kind of instinctual feedback doesn’t exist in the editing process. When you’re proof reading, you are trying to trick your brain into pretending that it’s reading the thing for the first time. Stafford suggests that if you want to catch your own errors, you should try to make your work as unfamiliar as possible. Change the font or background color, or print it out and edit by hand.

“Once you’ve learned something in a particular way, it’s hard to see the details without changing the visual form,” he said.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why you need an editor, even if you're in a hurry or broke

© 2013 Christy K Robinson

I get it.

  • You’ve been a writer since you were able to read, and you have a good command of English.
  • Your writing application has spell-check, and even gives a wavy green underline for questionable prose.
  • Your mother is a better speller than you are, and she read it through for free.
  • There’s only a short window of time to get your self-pub on the market before you’re broke, the topic loses momentum, or the gifting season ends.
  • The story is “the thing,” and spelling, rhetoric, punctuation, characterization, and story arc can take a back seat to driving the high-performance story.


Yeah, not so much.

Some readers believe that a book or publication with more than one error is a mark of the author’s disrespect for readers. Others say that if an author can’t present the information or story in a standardized form, they can't be trusted to have their facts or history well-researched. 

Remember the carpenter's old saw: "Measure twice. Cut once." If you're in such a rush to get your golden prose onto the market that you can't wait a few weeks or a month to go through an edit and revisions, then you can't wait to have your mistakes (grand and memorable blunders or simple typos) entwined with your byline, preserved for all time in e-readers or bookshelves.

Don't think that your mistakes won't affect your sales. Dissatisfied readers will not sully their names and reputations by recommending your book! The following are comments I've cherry-picked from Amazon and Goodreads reviewers who don’t claim to be editors:
  • “Far too many grammatical & spelling mistakes on every page.”
  • “I found it difficult to read, because of the poor grammar and some spellings. Want some examples? There, instead of their, and the dreaded grocer's apostrophe. Perhaps the last one should be grocers' apostrophe, as they all seem to use it. Overall, a good tale, very topical, but could perhaps have been cut down by around 100 pages.”
  • “Appalling punctuation and grammar, which made it virtually impossible to read. It's one of the few books I haven't been able to finish. Very disappointing.”
  • “What an awkward book. I kept wanting to add all the missing words and reverse the order of many that were there so that sentences made sense. I love books that draw you in, flow along with the story timeline, and allow you to get lost in the lives of the characters. This story does none of those things.”
  • “I find the story interesting, the characters well-drawn, the pacing good, and the scenes vivid. But the many grammatical errors and formatting are terribly distracting! There are pages missing from Chapter 18. Words that the author wishes to emphasize are written in all-caps. The point of view changes abruptly between characters, and often I'm not sure who is emoting or speaking. "They're and there" and "your and you're" will certainly pass a Microsoft Word spell check, but glare up off the pages. The differences between British and American spellings or expressions are not an issue for me. Spelling, though, cannot be an excuse for the other problems with this manuscript.”

Don't let a spell-checker stand in for an editor! As a reader, I can't finish an article or book that contains more than one or two misspellings, lacks proper punctuation, or uses the wrong homonym (bait/bate, pore/pour). Just a moment ago, I saw a headline for an information blog that advertised: "Cabbage leaf will relive migraine headache." If the author can't tell the difference between "relive" and "relieve," I don't need to waste my time reading the article. No need to relive misery. Do you see what happened there (besides the fact that I'm picky)? The blog author lost the opportunity to draw me in. I didn't visit, and he/she lost respect as well as possible advertising revenue. 

I've been a professional editor and proofreader for many years, but when I published my first novel (second book), I put it out to professional colleagues to catch the things I'd become blind to over the two years of writing. I took their edits and was grateful for them. This is my reputation on the line, as well as anticipated sales of the book.

Notice that the popular authors (Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, William Butler Yeats) listed on Mental Floss had editors to save their butts everlasting reputations. Eleven Historical Figures Who Were Really Bad at Spelling  

So call me! I'll edit your book, article, website, syllabus, dissertation or thesis for very reasonable rates. My contact info is on my website,