Why You Don’t See Your Own Typos (and What to Do About It)

Why You Don't See Your Own Typos (and What (1)

A self-admitted word and grammar nerd, I sometimes wonder if my true calling isn’t to be a copy editor, filtering through text looking for misplaced commas, double spaces, and misapplied apostrophes.

But, as much as I love copy editing other people’s work, it’s tricky to edit my own writing. We tend to read our text how we think we wrote it, not how we actually wrote it. When you’re reading your own words, it’s easy to glaze right over a typo because you’re reading in the flow of your thoughts, not necessarily your words.

As psychologist Tom Stafford told Wired, “When you’re writing, you’re trying to convey meaning. It’s a very high level task,” he says. “We don’t catch every detail, we’re not like computers or NSA databases. Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.”

When we write, we know the points we’re trying to convey and we focus on them—rather than small details, such as a typo. When we read our writing back to ourselves, we read at that high-level we wrote at and tend to not see our typos.

Typos, for writers, are like missed lines for stage actors, or stumbles for a ballerina—they completely removed the reader from the story and remind them that there is a writer behind the story, and that the writer just blew it.

We all blow it sometimes. We just do. It’s hard to copy edit yourself. It’s good, when possible, to have someone else read your work, but in this rapid-fire publishing culture, in which done trumps perfect, there’s not always time, or someone else, to proofread your text.

In that case, take the advice of grammar and composition expert, Richard Nordquist, who offers up ten tips for proofreading your own work. Among his suggestions: look for one type of problem at a time, read a printed copy of your work, read your text aloud, and read your text backwards.

In the end, don’t freak out if a typo slips into one of your pieces and no one catches it. It happens. Move on and do better next time. As Mignon Fogarty of Grammar Girl writes,

“[G]iven my long history with typos, it has become my belief that it’s nearly impossible for someone to accurately proofread their own writing and be consistently successful. Think about it: If I produce 1,000 words a day, and I let one typo slip by every week, that’s actually a 99.986% success rate. If you think about it in terms of letters rather than words, since most typos happen at the level of letters, that one typo a week equates to about a 99.997% success rate.”

Yes, typo-free text is what we’re after, but a 99.997% success rate is not too bad at all, is it?

What are your most common typos? Do you have any tips to share for proofreading your own work?

Photo: Sebastien Wiertz (CC-BY)