About Writing, the process

Typo Blind

It seems that no matter how many times we edit our own work we can be blind to typos. Yet when we read a book or edit the work of someone else the typos pop right out. According to the article What’s up with that: Why it’s so hard to catch your own typos there is a reason behind this:

“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.”

The article suggests when we get to the editing process to try and make the manuscript as unfamiliar to our brains as possible. To either print it out and edit with a pen, change the background color or change the font.

Think of all the typos we do catch right away. Then the ones we catch later. But it is those ones that slip through the cracks that are infinitely annoying. So frustrating. Yet it is so glaring when I read a book and bump against every single typo in it. I know it is that my brain is extremely familiar with my own work and that it gets lost within it… seems to lock onto what it expects to see or gets caught up in the storyline again. Not the tiny details I want it to focus on. What I have been doing is leaving it be for a month or so while I write something else and then going back to it. It seems to help, but perhaps a simple font change could trick up that brain.


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