Your project is ready to go live. You’ve checked and re-checked it so often that you can still see it when you close your eyes. But the minute you hit publish, you notice an oh-so-obvious typo in paragraph two.
How did this happen?
We all overlook errors, omissions, and gaps in our work. It is not that we are careless or lack skill. Most of the reasons behind the mistakes are related to natural neurological functions.
Understanding why you miss things is the first step towards creating a proofing process that’s robust enough to keep most of those sneaky mistakes from slipping through.
Your Brain Likes Shortcuts
Errors aren’t made (and missed) because you’re not thinking. Instead, it’s because your brain is focused on higher functions related to conveying meaning – like narrative, connotations, and impact. In the process, it sometimes needs to take shortcuts to facilitate those functions.
Talking to Wired, psychologist Professor Tom Stafford explained: “We don’t catch every detail, we’re not like computers or NSA databases, rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.”
Because you know what you’re trying to say and what it should look like, you see what your brain expects to see. So, typos, missing words, and even gaps in your argument or narrative as written can slip right by you. You’re seeing the version that exists in your head.
This is even more of a problem with something you’ve been working on for a while. Your idea of what it’s supposed to be becomes entrenched due to familiarization (whether it exists on the screen or not).
Associations Work Against You
The brain also works by relying on associations and groupings to enable it to process information more quickly.
Many grammatical errors come about because your brain makes decisions based on habit and familiarity, so it selects a word that’s more strongly associated with the previous one than the one you intended to use.
Andrew Heisel demonstrates this concept in The Washington Post: “If a friend texts that she’s ‘going to a concert’ and you want to tell her you’re also going, you might type, “I’m going, to,” instead of “I’m going, too”. Your brain is used to hearing the word ‘going’ followed by the word ‘to’ (as in going to work/school/etc.) and it just saw the phrase used that way in your friend’s text.”
Because those habits and associations are still at play when you read it back, there’s a chance you’ll skim right over those mistakes because of how natural they feel.
Inattentional blindness refers to how focusing hard on one thing can cause you to overlook something else, even when it should be obvious.
Have you ever seen this video? Try to count how many ball passes are made by people wearing white shirts.
This is one of the most famous demonstrations of selective attention. Perhaps you – like more than half of the viewers in the original experiment – failed to notice when a person in a gorilla suit crossed the screen.
As Daniel Simons, one of the researchers behind the gorilla video, explains: “We consciously see only a small subset of our visual world, and when our attention is focused on one thing, we fail to notice other, unexpected things around us—including those we might want to see.”
So, if you’re focusing hard on something else about the project, inattentional blindness may cause you to miss “obvious” mistakes.
Automatic Brain Unscrambling
The internet is full of snippets of misspelled text designed to prove just how great our brains are at compensating for mistakes and unscrambling garbled words. It even spawned a (jokey) new term, “typoglycemia”: the ability to understand a word when the first and last letters are correct but the inner ones are scrambled.
Scientists believe this ability to compensate may be partly down to clues offered by context. The things that come before and after (whether it’s the words on either side or the first and last letters) clue you into what a misspelled word is meant to be, so you don’t consciously notice that things aren’t how they should be.
Another contributing factor is that you don’t always register the letters one at a time, in isolation, but all as one unit. So, providing all or most of the letters are there, it’s very easy for the brain to assume that the word was spelled correctly.
Too Much Trust in Spell Check
Spelling and grammar checkers have revolutionized our review processes. It’s made it possible to instantly proof copy with confidence. Right? No red or blue underlines mean it’s good to go.
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to trust them too far. The temptation is to think that if something has received a clean bill of health from Spell Check or Grammarly, it’s error-free.
Spellcheckers can now catch most common mistakes and, especially with AI integrations, are improving all the time. However, there are still things that can fly under the radar.
Tools can’t always flag whether you’ve used a word that isn’t the one you intended. The same is also true of extra or missing words that don’t render a sentence grammatically incorrect but do change the meaning.
(For example, Grammarly insisted I change the above sentence “catch most common mistakes” to “catch the most common mistakes”, despite the added word changing the intended meaning).
Upgrading Your Process
While you’ll never be able to completely banish mistakes, a robust proofing process that you can rely on every time is a great start.
One top tip is not to rely on just one proofing method. By incorporating different techniques into your creative workflows, you’ll be able to account for a range of mistakes and the various cognitive processes that lead them to go unnoticed.
Here are a few helpful tactics to get you started:
Check One Thing at a Time
Make the selective focus that leads to attentional blindness work for you instead. Focus exclusively on one type of potential error per read-through.
Add Fresh Eyes
Someone who has never seen the project before is far more likely to notice mistakes. An online proofing tool like ReviewStudio enables them to give you their feedback quickly and precisely.
Change the Format
You can shock your brain out of its habit of shortcutting by changing the way your project looks, whether that’s by changing the font or printing it out.
As Tom Stafford puts it: “Once you’ve learned something in a particular way, it’s hard to see the details without changing the visual form.” If you choose a particular format that you save exclusively for reviewing, it will also help your brain to enter error-spotting mode and avoid inattentional blindness.
Listening to something you’ve written will give you a fresh perspective on the text and also make missing, misused, or misspelled words much more apparent. You can achieve this easily by using a ”Read Aloud” feature or your device’s built-in screen reader (like Microsoft Narrator or Apple Voiceover).
To make sure your brain isn’t being distracted by the meaning or being tricked by context, work backward. Checking each sentence or word in isolation will make it much easier to spot incorrect spellings or accidental repetitions without getting caught up in the meaning.
Wait Before You Proof
Familiarity with the idea of the project that exists in your head encourages your brain to take shortcuts. Growing accustomed to the look of it on the page or screen makes it less likely that errors will stand out to you. Take a step back and do something else before you proof so you can disassociate from the work a little.
Increase Your Chances
Overlooking errors is a natural consequence of how your brain interprets the vast amount of information flooding in at any one time. While you can’t change that, there are simple techniques you can use to increase your chances of spotting mistakes and gaps.
Relying on one technique or tool probably won’t help you address all the reasons why mistakes can go unnoticed. Instead, design a proofing process for yourself with several different stages to make sure you’re accounting for as many variables as possible.