Proofreading is like a game of hide and seek. ‘Ready-or-not, here I come!’ — and you’re off on the hunt to uncover the hiding places of typos, reversed letters and grammatical errors.
Although we may be pretty good at proofing someone else’s writing; the game becomes more challenging when played with our own document. One that we may have spent weeks researching and months crafting. Try as we may, we find that we aren’t as adept at catching the mistakes we have made ourselves.
So why is it so hard to catch mistakes in our own writing? Why do our own errors often hide from us in plain sight, yet are immediately obvious to others? Most of us have experienced a similar scenario when, after we’ve spent the last half hour searching for our lost eye glasses, someone else is quick to point out that they’re clearly resting on top of our head. Even though the glasses had been there all along, we never noticed it.
The same goes for proofreading our own work. It becomes so familiar to us that we subconsciously miss things we shouldn’t.
“What we see on the screen is competiting with the version that exists in our head,” explains Wired Magazine. “Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts of it are absent.”
To counteract this, it helps to make your work as unfamiliar as possible. Experiment with the techniques we’ve listed below to try and trick your brain into thinking it’s seeing your content for the first time.
Tips for proofing your own work:
- Read sentences in reverse order
Proofing sentences backwards, from the last word to the first, will help you become super-vigilant at spotting typos. This strategy works so well because it tricks your mind into focusing on the individual words, instead of the sentence. When reading a sentence in the traditional way, from left to right, it’s natural for the mind to rush ahead to complete the sentence. It processes the words too quickly because it wants to keep moving forward as it anticipates the context of the sentence. Read backwards and you remove this context.
Think of how you drive differently on a road you travel everyday versus a road that’s unfamiliar. When on a route you’ve driven hundreds of times, your auto-pilot kicks in and you easily pass by road signs or landmarks without much notice. In contrast, a new route requires more focus. You drive slower so you can concentrate on your location.
- Read your writing out loud
Engage your sense of hearing by reading out loud to help pick up on errors such as an awkwardly worded sentence or a tone that doesn’t come across as you had hoped.
Words, phrases and ideas flow more naturally as we read them aloud, so you may also find this technique helpful for breaking out of a writer’s block. Add a bit of fun by reading it in different accents or as your favorite movie character and see if it helps spark an idea.
- Use a text-to-speech app to listen to your writing
This is one of my favorite strategies for improving my writing. A Text-to-Speech (TTS) app, such as PaperScan or Pocket, converts words to audio and reads it out loud. I send a draft of my writing to the app, hit play, then sit back and listen as it plays back. For me, listening to what I’ve written gives me a new perspective on how it sounds and makes it easier to recognize errors, and to check if my ideas flow the way I intended.
For an overview of the top TTS apps, see this article from TechWiser. Look for an app that supports the text format you use the most – txt, pdf, doc etc.
Interesting to note, TTS is also a helpful assistive technology that can help those (children and adults) who struggle with reading or dyslexia. Researchers have found that the multisensensory experience that comes from seeing and hearing text at the same time has many benefits. You can read more on this at Understood.org.
- Proof for one type of problem at a time
Instead of proofreading with the expectation of catching every type of mistake in one round, proofread in passes – each time with a different focus. For example, during your first proofing round, look for typos; second round look only for punctuation errors; and so on.
- Change the typeface, size or color of your text
If you’re using Arial 12 point, for example, try changing it to 36 point Times New Roman. Change the color. Maybe you choose purple for every other paragraph, with dark green in between. However you decide to change things up is fine, the important thing is to just make it look different so you’re effectively looking at it with fresh eyes. Your brain will think it’s reading something unfamiliar and is not as likely to subconsciously correct the mistakes.
Employ these game-changing strategies whenever you feel that the errors in your writing are better at hiding than you are at finding. Pretty soon, you’ll be one of the best players on the block.