13 proofreading hacks based on the psychology of reading

Image: Boston Globe printed edition, April 21, 2017

Typos and mistakes seem inevitable. While you can delegate the proofreading job to someone else who’s an expert nitpicker, that’s not always practical when we’re all sending emails, blogging, and posting on social networks at real-time speed with little editing. But if you’re smart about how brains see (and don’t see) errors, you can catch more of them before it’s too late.

First, let’s get this out of the way: The posts on this blog contain typos, many of which you’ve pointed out to me. As a self-professed writing expert, I’m embarrassed. So I’m writing this, not from a position of moral authority, but from one of experience — I’m a fellow sufferer. Even if you are a good writer who knows the rules of grammar, usage, and spelling, you’re going to make mistakes. Here’s the wisdom of blogging icon Anil Dash on the subject:

Typos in posts don’t reveal themselves until you’ve published. If you schedule a post to publish in the future, the typos will be revealed then. This is an absolute, inviolable rule of blogging. This may be some sort of subtle lesson from the universe about our hubris in the face of fundamental impermanence.

13 proofreading hacks

Here’s the problem: when you write something, what you’ve typed (or more accurately, what you meant to type) is also in your brain. When you read it over again, your brain sees what it wants to see, rather than what is on the page. That makes it truly difficult to spot typos, even if they become immediately obvious once somebody else notices them. All these hacks are based on fooling your brain (or borrowing somebody else’s) to see what’s actually there, rather than what you imagine to be there.

I’ve listed these tips in order of quality — work your way down until you get to one you have the time and budget for. And there’s no penalty for using many of them; after you’ve used one to finally catch “all” the typos, you’ll find the next one reveals a few more.

1. Get a copyeditor.

If it matters, get a professional copyeditor. I do this for every book, proposal, and report I create. Copyeditors are trained to spot what you can’t see — including violations of rules you don’t realize are rules.

Copyeditors aren’t free, they don’t work instantaneously, and you have to get into their queue. If you blog and post on social media, you might not have the budget or time for one. So move on to the next suggestion.

2. Get a friend to read it.

Somebody else will spot what you can’t, even if they’re not a professional copyeditor. So ask your writing colleague or buddy to review what you wrote. Thank them, then do the same for them when they ask you.

3. Know your blind spots.

After over 500 posts, I know where I make typos. It’s on homonyms (I know the difference between you’re and your, but sometimes I type the wrong one). So I look for problems with apostrophes and homophonic words like “to.” If you have trouble spelling occasion or embarrassing — or if your work means you must constantly use words like ischemic — make a note and conduct a final review focusing on those problem areas.

4. Concentrate on your latest edits.

Coders know the most likely source of a bug is the code they just patched to fix a different bug. Similarly, when you’ve squeezed most of the errors out of an important piece of text, the stuff you edited last is the most likely place you’ve introduced a new error. Errors here often manifest themselves in sentences that appear to be missing something or inconsistencies in names, tense, and the like, where the new text doesn’t match the rest of the document. Proof the new stuff twice or three times before you trust it. (You can use Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature or Google Docs’ revision history to see what you just edited.)

5. Wait a day.

You’ll spot things a day later that you missed the first time, because your brain will forget what you thought you wrote . . . and see what you actually wrote.

6. View things in a different format.

I write my blog in WordPress, which has a preview feature. Since the blog preview is in a different format from the blog editor, my brain sees what’s actually on the page, including the typos.

You can get the same value by switching to different views in the Microsoft Word View menu — from Draft to Print Layout, for example. Switch the text from Word into Google Docs, or vice versa. Move it into a page layout program or output as a PDF. Once you’re looking at in a new format, you’ll see things you missed in the original format.

7. Print it out.

Concentrating on screens is hard; as Naomi S. Baron, the author of Words Onscreen, explained to me, “Digital technologies are not designed for deep reading.”  You’ll concentrate better if you’re looking at a printout.

8. Read it out loud.

I read the audiobooks of all my books — and found and cursed many typos along the way. Reading out loud engages different parts of the brain from reviewing text, and will reveal errors you’d never spot by reading silently.

9. Change the margins.

Shift the margins, squeeze your window, or view the text on a mobile device. Your brain sees what it wants to see when you’ve got things in the original editing format; changing the line breaks may be enough to wake up your typo detector.

10. Change the font.

Like changing the margins, a new font can make you see the words differently, including your own errors.

11. Read from the bottom.

I used to review blueline proofs, the final stage of proofreading before having a printer print something. An old proofreader’s trick is to turn proofs upside down so you can spot elements that are out of place, because when you’re not reading for sense, you can spot them more easily.

I don’t recommend reading your text upside down, unless you’re adept at that sort of thing. But read the sentences in reverse order, from bottom to top. “Won’t that slow me down?” you ask. That’s actually the point.

12. Check numbers, proper names, and titles

Spell checkers won’t notice if you meant to type $2.3 billion and typed $2.3 million instead. And they don’t always know the right way to spell words like VisiCalc. Numbers and proper names are easy to pick out visually, so do a proofing pass concentrated only on these elements. You’ll also spot numbered lists that are out of sequence, a problem I caught several times in earlier drafts before publishing this post.

Don’t forget to check the titles and headings. While they’re easy to miss in proofreading passes, they’re also the most embarrassing places to make a mistakes.

13. Be grateful for nitpickers

How do you react when someone points out a typo in something you wrote? I’m grateful, because I can usually fix it. Getting mad at the nitpickers is pointless — after all, you’re the one who made the mistake. Just say “Thank you sir, may I have another?” (Thanks in advance to everyone who finds the mistakes in this post.)

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  1. I always stumble over words like occasion or embarrassing — why? I think it’s because I’ve created neural pathways for both the right and wrong spelling. I use most of the tips you mentioned. Since I send what I write to someone I’ve interviewed for their approval, I’ve taken to copy/pasting my writing into the body of the email rather than sending an attachment — it gives me another chance to proof in email format, and keeps them from worrying about a virus in an attachment.

    A tip from ancient times — put a dot next to a word you look up in a dictionary (what’s THAT?) so you can keep track of words you misspell often.

  2. Great post! Very true that typos don’t reveal themselves until you’ve published. I have been caught several time on #4, where the stuff I edited last is where I’ve introduced a new error. Yes, it’s embarrassing, and all too human.

  3. There is a tool I recently discovered in ‘Word’ that reads back my final drafts in a computer voice. Astonishing how many simple things it finds, and the ‘voice’ makes it obvious.
    The icon is now on my quick access dashboard, so I select the text, click the tool,and it reads it back. Does about 400 words at a time.
    It is now the final step in every post, and I am slowly editing and correcting the 1400 or so before I discovered it, all of which contain errors despite my diligence at the time of posting.
    Still make errors though………

    1. An excellent plan!
      That’s how proofreaders used to work, back when there was a proper budget and no computers to do this: they would work in pairs, one reading out each letter, character, line, and space while the other checked the copy.

    2. Allen – thanks for this tip. I just added that tool to the tool bar and used it. Found two errors right away.

  4. thanks for this, josh … very helpful … my prob is repeating words especially when i’m writing emails late in the evening … spell checkers not much use here. best wishes, john langford, sunshine coast, queensland.
    ps. find the ‘leave it 24 hrs then check again & send’ a good stategy 🙂

  5. Great set of tips thanks! I write, edit and proof – and still make plenty of errors, so have a checklist of things to run through during proofing stages. Running searches for quotation marks, hyphens, apostrophes, brackets, etc. can reveal all sorts of glitches.

  6. Hello Josh!

    Might I add that changing the colour of the page in whatever software you’re using can also trick the brain into reading what’s actually there.

    This works even better than changing the font, I assume because the brain sees in patterns and colours first, but I’m guessing.

    Another area of particular difficulty is in headings and anything using all caps.

    Thanks for a great post!

  7. This is a great article and it has a lot of great points that I really didn’t pay attention before. I recommend it to anyone it actually has given me a different prospective on how to proofreading my work and documents that I work on and turned in at my school.