“Your spelling should be an embarrassment,” my professor wrote across my essay. I was an English major. My heart pounded and heat flooded my face. I just need some good proofreading strategies, I thought. I can learn how to proofread better.
After college, I continued to write for my job. One day our client’s assistant invited me to lunch. I couldn’t wait to sit down with a woman so many of us admired.
My team produced content for her office to publish. She worked with a group of military officers who respected her attention to detail. I was so honored she had asked me to lunch — thinking she might have noticed the high standards of quality we held to.
“I’m so glad to have a chance to talk to you,” she sighed. “I have been desperate to speak to somebody in your group. I was so surprised when I received your materials. They need so much work!”
My heart stopped. “I’m so sorry to hear that. What do you mean, so much work?”
“The quality is terrible,” she said. “For one thing, they’re full of typos.”
Many years have passed since these embarrassing moments. I learned it’s never safe for me to trust my eyes to catch typographical mistakes. So I found a way to use my ears.
Why Is it So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos?
Typographical errors can be surprisingly hard to catch. Writing and editing will introduce mistakes. You’ll change some passages more than others. You’ll move sentences around, rephrase things, or try different words. The closer you are to your work, the easier it is to miss typos.
Why do we miss typos? Here are 3 big reasons we overlook mistakes.
1) Perception is not foolproof. At some point, your eyes stop seeing what’s there (and can mislead your brain).
We make assumptions to help us survive. The human brain even creates visual information to help us function in life!
Scientists have found that the mind will construct visual information that is missing or out of view in real life. Inference is a great survival skill. But it can mislead you into thinking you saw something that was not actually there. Our brain fills in the blanks so well and so quickly, we may not notice it’s happened.
Inference is one challenge to better proofreading. Another challenge is our desire to be right. This trait can skew our ability to notice mistakes. Known as the confirmation bias, it’s a tendency to see more of what agrees with our desired reality.
Nobody really wants to believe they make mistakes. Your brain will want to confirm this idea. So it’s going to help you by looking past them.
You can use the confirmation bias to your advantage. You’ll see how in the 3-step proofreading technique that follows.
2) Computers change words when we’re not looking.
Computer spelling and grammar checking tools are not foolproof in catching errors. In fact, they can create errors we didn’t even make ourselves. Auto-correction may alter words we’ve typed after our focus has moved on. Plus many false-positives occur. No program can catch every human mistake.
For instance, no spell checker I tried caught every misused word in prior drafts of this article. My spell checker missed incorrectly used words such as:
- Too vs. tool
- Wan vs. want
- Every vs. very
- Work vs. word
- Getter vs. better
However, computers are so good at catching so many other typos, it’s easy to trust them too much. Our technology gives us confidence, which can inspire a false sense of security.
3) Our full attention isn’t available.
A traditional proofreading tip is to read your work aloud. But if you’re like me, reading aloud may be another error-prone technique.
It takes a lot of effort to slow down and read every word. Sometimes you must proofread when you’re rushing to meet a deadline or when you’re tired.
Also, reading aloud divides your attention between reading and listening. Without your full attention, you may miss mistakes.
That’s why you’ll wan a proofreading tip that relies more on what on you hear.
See what I mean? You’ll really want to check with your ears.
Here’s where your computer’s text-to-speech feature comes in. It’s a great tool to compensate for brain fatigue. When you can focus fully on the text, rather than both listen and read, you can proofread better.
How to Use a Fast, Easy Proofreading Technique With a Screen Reader
A free feature on your computer is also a great proofreading tool: the screen reader. Most computers have a text-to-speech tool that makes it much easier to focus all your attention on your work.
It won’t make assumptions or compensate for missing words like your eyes can.
You can put more of your focus on each word and phrase. When you listen to your words with a screen reader, you can catch more errors your eyes miss.
Here is how I recommend using this proofreading method:
Step 1: Eliminate distractions.
- Make the most of your attention. Close other windows on your computer. Don’t look at your phone. Turn off anything that can interrupt your attention.
Step 2: Activate your screen reader.
Using Mac OS:
- Highlight the text you want to check.
- Hold down Option and press the escape key (Option+Esc).
- Listen for the reader to begin.
If you don’t hear the screen reader begin after a moment, you may need to enable this feature. You can toggle the reader off the same way (Option+Esc).
If this screen reader doesn’t start automatically, you may need to turn this feature on. To enable the screen reader on a Mac go to Apple > System Preferences.
- Click Accessibility.
- Select Speech (in the list of features to the left).
- Select the check box labeled: Speak selected text when the key is pressed. The default keyboard shortcut will appear underneath, e.g., Option+Esc.
Using Windows: Narrator is the Windows tool that reads your screen aloud.
- Press the Windows, Control, and Enter keys simultaneously (Win+CTRL+Enter).
- Toggle off Narrator the same way.
Step 3: Use headphones, expect errors, and keep up.
Here’s how to listen to catch more errors:
- Use headphones. Follow closely with your eyes to the words being read aloud back to you. Does anything sound a little off? You can find misused words, missing words, or awkward phrases by double-checking where the screen reader sounds like it slipped up, even subtly.
- Expect to find errors. Your eyes tend to notice what the brain wants to see (confirmation bias). If you assume there are no errors, you’ll tend to see only what validates this belief. Instead, use the confirmation bias to help you spot mistakes. Expect to find them from the start, and you’ll find more of them.
- Keep up when making corrections. You almost certainly will find something to change. Unless it’s a very quick fix, pause the screen reader. Don’t let the voice get ahead of your eyes. Toggle the reader off and on again if you must, to keep up with the audio.
- If you edit, do it again. I can’t tell you how many typos I found after making what I thought were tiny, harmless edits. I need to follow my own advice here.
Decide When It’s Good Enough, and Publish
How much proofreading is good enough?
Decide ahead of time how much review is enough. Your decision will depend on the job the piece of writing needs to do.
For an informal situation, a “good enough” checklist might be:
- Let the draft rest overnight
- Read through and make final edits
- Proofread with a screen reader
For an important piece that needs pristine quality to do its job, a “good enough” checklist might include:
- Make final edits
- Proofread with a screen reader
- Send to a copy editor
- Send to a proofreader
You can get successfully get better at finding typos. Knowing the main reasons why it’s easy to miss them can help you face the challenge. Reasons errors get overlooked include:
- The mind makes visual assumptions
- Our confirmation bias skews what we tend to notice
- We put great faith in spell checking programs that aren’t foolproof
To overcome these challenges, use a screen reader to help you check every syllable. The steps are:
- Remove distractions.
- Activate the screen reader.
- Listen with headphones. Expect mistakes exist. Keep pace with the narration.
A Note of Encouragement
Even with the best proofreading skills, mistakes happen. As writers, we’re only human, and we’re doing our best. Anyone who uses shame tactics when pointing out missteps may have another agenda. Truly helpful feedback informs without scorn.
Remember, missteps aren’t a sign of failure. More likely, you may be trying too hard to do the right thing. Embarrassment may sting. But that doesn’t negate the value of your work, your ideas, and who you are.
I am learning to work up the courage to return to writing and accept my imperfections.
I wish for you a kindhearted audience. I also wish for you greater ease and success with this proofreading tip. Fewer typos means more confidence for you and more focus on the value and knowledge in your message for everyone.
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