According to a recent article in Wired about the psychology behind typos, there are actually legitimate, scientific mechanims behind our inability to spot our own mistakes. And our dread of proofreading.
When we write, we're using an extraordinary amount of processing power to string letters into words into sentences into narratives that express complex themes and ideas. The fundamental task of simply spelling words correctly, or hitting the correct keys on the keyboard, gets delegated to the lowest neurons on the totem pole.
But just because they're easy for us to miss doesn't mean typos aren't a big deal. Ever come across a typo in an article online? Or worse, a printed manuscript? Kind of takes you out of the experience, right?
I get asked pretty frequently about how I approach copy editing and proofreading my own work for spelling, grammar, and punctuation. So I put together this list of literally every proofreading method I've ever used, or heard of other writers using, to fix typos before publishing.
Hope it helps!
Let's start with the basics. You wouldn't believe how many typos you can catch by just reading over your work once or twice before you send it out. And these days, everyone's always in such a hurry to publish new content that this obvious, fundamental step gets skipped far too often.
I beg of you -- take thirty minutes or an hour before you publish to read through your work and ensure clean copy. The Internet will survive without your genius in the meantime.
Okay, so, we all know the satisfying feeling of accomplishment we get after finishing a piece of writing. Turns out, this might not be the best time to go back and edit our work. If your eyes are dried out and your brain is aching for a break, spend some time away from the piece before you come back to check for typos.
You'll see things more clearly once a little time has passed.
I don't know about you, but I've gotten in the habit of ignoring Microsoft Word's built-in spelling and grammar tool. I tend to assume those squiggly red or green lines just aren't sophisticated enough to comprehend my mastery of the language. Riiiight. Next time you're working on a piece, try actually running the real spell check tool, which forces you to ignore or fix each potential error, one by one.
If you need something a little more robust, try Grammarly. It's free, and in addition to helping you catch your typos, it's excellent for sniffing out much more nuanced grammar issues, word choice problems, and other detailed writing mistakes.
Though sometimes difficult to acquire, having a friend or colleague read your writing for you is usually one of the best ways to find and fix typos. They don't have the burden of context. While reading, they aren't anticipating the next word, and are better able to focus on finding errors.
If you can find someone to read and mark up your work thoroughly, you stand a pretty good chance of winding up with a clean finished product.
A running theme in many of these typo-blasting methods is this idea of making your work unfamiliar to you. If you've been working on your writing inside a word processor or online content management system, try printing it out on a real sheet of paper for a change of scenery. You'll see the words just a little bit differently, and it may help you spot errors.
Plus, working with paper and a red pen can be a great way of making notes about structure and other changes you may want to make in the next draft.
One of the problems with trying to edit your own work is your familiarity with it. Because of this, your eyes want to get lazy and skip ahead to the next word or line and let your brain fill in the blanks. You just can't help it.
But a good way to combat this is to lay a straight edge below the line you're editing, whether on paper or on a computer screen. Block out all the content below and focus on just one sentence at a time.
Here's another good way of overcoming your eyes' desire to skip words. Reading your work aloud forces you to pay extra attention to each word, and allows you to see them in a new context.
Also, your speaking cadence may be different than your inner-voice, which can help you spot not only typos, but bits of awkward phrasing and sloppy transitions.
This is a bit of an easier ask than trying to convince someone to spell-check your work. Ask a peer to read your writing out loud to you and they'll likely stumble across any typos in the process.
And, again, this is also an excellent way of identifying any hiccups in the structure, flow, or narrative of your piece.
Going back to that concept of making your work feel as unfamiliar as possible, try changing the font to something strange like Comic Sans. Or blow up the font size to 18. Or slide the margins in tight to give your work a column-like appearance.
Try anything you can to make the work look drastically different. It will re-engage your brain when you begin reading again for typos.
Sometimes the most practical method of finding typos is just to keep reading over your work again and again. I know it's boring. But if you don't have a printer, have no friends, or just don't feel like trying any of these other methods, reading through several times is a pretty good way to get the job done if you can force your brain to stay on alert.
This one is super anal but that's also why it works so well. Reading your work from end to beginning completely strips it of any meaning or narrative, forcing you to look carefully at each individual word.
Reading a longer piece in this way can be tedious and time consuming -- but that's just a small price to pay for clean copy.
Having trouble enlisting help, but still a fan of the read-aloud method? Try having your computer read your words back to you.
Microsoft Word can do this through Narrator on PC, Text to Speech on Mac, or you can use a free online tool like this one. You can be sure the computer generated voice will stumble over any typos, alerting you to their presence.
Kind of like reading backwards, shuffling the order of your words can eliminate context and make for easy editing.
Try a free online tool like this one from Christopher Cormier to break your writing down ino its component parts, then edit from there.
Note: Once your words are shuffled, there's no great way to unshuffle them. The best thing to do is find a typo in the shuffled text, then do a Search & Replace inside your Word processor for that error.
Smart workers always know when it's time to call in the pros. If you're having trouble finding an extra set of eyes, or you need help editing a truly massive document, it might be best to pay someone to give your work another look.
One of the biggest reasons spell-check fails? Homonyms. Words that sound the same, but mean different things (and are often spelled differently). For example, if you meant "pair", but you wrote "pear", Word won't pick up the error.
Here is an absolutely enormous list of common (and not so common) homonyms from Alan Cooper. Have you used any of these words in your writing? Better do a quick search and see if you may have slipped up and used the wrong version of the word.
How about this one? Open a fresh Word document or blog post, keep your written piece open in a separate window, and retype the thing from scratch.
Not only will it force your fingers to do the heavy lifting so your brain doesn't have to, this is a good way to double-check the flow of your piece. It's also a really great method of regaining your writing momentum on an unfinished piece after you've had a break.
Here's a sneaky idea for taking the CONCEPT of paying someone money for clean copy, and using it to get the same result for free.
Ask a friend or peer to read your writing. Offer him or her a dollar for every typo he or she finds. Then, proofread your piece one last time.
You might be surprised what the extra motivation helps you find.
Let it go. Just do it.
We've all been there before. Laboring over a finished piece and sweating over the possibility there may be a mistake we've missed.
Just hit Publish. You can do it!
Besides, you can always take comfort in knowing that, if there are typos, your readers are going to find them immediately!
What did I miss? Tell me about your favorite method for finding typos in the comments.
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