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Why your brain is your frenemy when it comes to reading and writing

Our brains are capable of doing amazing things, including adapting to typos and duplicate words in text as we read so that we can speed through a document without even noticing the mistakes. Convenient. We see what we expect to see.

But that can be a problem when we’re trying to create a polished manuscript free of typos and glitches. Add to that the fact that the more we read the same piece of text, the closer we are to it and the less likely we are to spot errors.

There’s even an Internet meme (with an element of truth to it) that calls this malady typoglycemia. See for yourself:

“I cdn’uolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg: the phaonmneel pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rseearch taem at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Scuh a cdonition is arppoiatrely cllaed Typoglycemia .

“Amzanig huh? Yaeh and you awlyas thguoht slpeling was ipmorantt.”

Go to the Wikipedia typoglycemia page to see the correct text.

So knowing this, how do we bypass our brains when it comes to reviewing text for errors?

Try these tips:

1. Get into an editing mindset. Go to a quiet place. Editing and proofing copy require concentration and people talking in your ear or interrupting you are a distraction.

2. Print out your copy. Many of my writing friends say they spot errors more easily if they read the copy on a printed page rather than on their computer monitor.

3. Read your copy aloud. Or have someone else read it to you. And even follow along while someone reads it to double-check what you’re hearing and seeing.

4. Don’t read the document in order. If you’re proofreading for typos, punctuation and word choice, rather than flow of ideas, mix up sections or chapters.

5. Don’t read it all at once. If you have a long document or manuscript, pace yourself so you don’t lose your editing focus.

6. Enlist a fresh perspective. Ask a few friends to proof your manuscript. They won’t be so close to the text.

For more insight, read this article from The Guardian: Why do we make mistakes? Blame your brain, the original autocorrector.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I understand this completely – I wrote about this ‘trick of the mind’ here: http://mandyevebarnett.com/2013/08/30/it-pays-to-be-vigilant-when-editing-30/

    September 12, 2013
  2. I’ve discovered that I see typos more easily on the kindle app, so I’ve taken to reading my final manuscript on there and annotating it. It’s also harder to annotate so I don’t feel tempted to rewrite chunks. Printing it out without killing trees! 🙂
    On the downside I’ve also started noticing typos in other kindle books so it’s taking the fun out of reading somewhat!

    September 12, 2013

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