Friday, October 04, 2013

Posted by Laurel Garver on Friday, October 04, 2013 3 comments
photo by Alvimann,
I edit for a living, and yet when it comes to cleaning up my own work, I often blithely pass over simple errors.  Why is that?

Brain science says our minds are sense-making machines. Our minds will interpret what's in front of us as what we expect to see, mentally filling in omitted words, for example, or seeing expected end punctuation that isn't actually there.

So how does one trick the mind to stop making sense (and assumptions)? Here are a few tricks I use at work to ensure I catch everything.

Change the text's appearance

If you're accustomed to always reading a manuscript in letter size (8.5" x 11"), temporarily change your page size to A5, which is roughly the size of a paperback page. (In the "page layout" menu, select A5.) The shorter lines will make the text flow differently, thus making it unfamiliar. Your brain will approach the text afresh. You'll be better able to see what's actually there rather than what your brain assumes is there.

Changing the typeface and font size can also help. Make all three changes if necessary.

Expect to find errors

Remember how the brain sees what it expects to see? Expect errors and you will find errors.

When you do a first pass, focus on syntax and vocabulary. Question everything.

Word is pretty good at helping you find blatant typos, like "teh" for "the," as well as accidental repetitions and some punctuation errors. It's not so good at finding some kinds of accidental omissions or misused vocabulary.

You might find it helpful to search for each of the words on this list of most common homophone errors (misuse of sound-alike words) and check to be sure you've got the right term for the context. More homophones are listed here. The most extensive list is here (though the collector mistakenly uses the term "homonym" which means "same-name" and refers to terms with one spelling and multiple meanings, like bat).

Do a second pass, focusing on punctuation. Again, assume there are errors. Keep a style book at the ready. If you're not sure whether to add a comma or delete one, look it up.

Slow down

Silent reading allows one to breeze through a text quickly. In fact, it encourages skimming.

To make sure you catch everything rather than zip past errors, take chapters out of order (again, to make them fresh and unfamiliar) and read them aloud. Slowly. Make sure to say only what is actually on the page.

What is your most common missed error? Do you have any additional tricks to help you proofread? 


  1. I just finished proofing the project I did for school. Funnily enough, I spent all of last Saturday going over it on the computer, declared it "clean" , and then uploaded it for paperback. I ordered the paper proof and read that yesterday and could not believe how many errors (thankfully) I caught.

    It's truly funny what the mind sees and the difference between that and what it THINKS it sees. How could I have missed the blatantly missing opening quotation marks? Or that comma?

    I always catch more on paper than I do by changing font or size on computer.

  2. My high school English teacher taught us "Satanic proofreading"--start from the end and read each sentence through til you get to the beginning. :)