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February 1, 2017

Cindy Penchina, President

Why Mistakes Happen in Writing (And How to Avoid Them)

Typos happen. Whether you mis-struck a key, typed the wrong homophone, or just plum forgot how to spell a word (we’ve all been there), typos are the bane of everyone trying to use the written word to project an air of competence and capability. And of course they are; while a forgiving reader will be happy to overlook one, if they start cropping up again and again, they rapidly begin to undermine the credibility of your organization.

But typos and grammatical mistakes don’t happen for no reason, and if you want to eliminate them, you need to know what’s causing them to begin with.

It’s all about how your brain works.

We don’t communicate – even on the written page – in terms of how words are spelled. We’re communicating thoughts. You see, our brains are in lots of ways data-storage systems, but they’re ones that operate unlike the computer you’re probably reading this on. Words are stored on neurons that are organized semantically; that means that words that are similar in meaning, have similar sounds, come in predictable groupings, or even have similar shapes can all start to cluster together. Which means that you could be looking for “too” and find “to,” because your brain decided, on the fly, that that was probably the spelling you were looking for.

Typing is a particular kind of linguistic expression; we have all this muscle memory tied to semantic units organized in our heads in these weird holistic ways. Our relative typing fluency is the degree to which we don’t have to hunt and peck on the keyboard for the right key, painstakingly typing out the entire word bit…by………bit. We just find the word in our head, and our brain puts together – automatically – how to get that thought from your brain to your fingers to the keyboard.

Think about how complicated a process that is, and then add to it the process of nailing down the right spelling every time, and you’re in for a process that is bound to be absolutely fraught with errors – even assuming a perfectly educated and conscientious writer behind the screen. Not even the prototypical “fat fingers” problem begins to match this one for the sheer difficulty of catching (and correcting) these mistakes. And it all arises because conveying meaning is a high-level mental activity that often simply doesn’t have time to check itself as it goes.

The same problem makes noticing these problems harder – especially in your own work. After all, you’re the one behind the thoughts; you know what you were communicating, so you’re a lot more likely to skim – and therefore gloss over – words that seem to fit, but really don’t: homophones, misspellings, and/or minor typos.

But that’s not an excuse.

Typos, grammatical mistakes, and other simple slipups can instantly ruin your credibility. That means you need to focus on catching mistakes before they become problems. We understand that mistakes happen; typos are almost impossible to prevent during the drafting process, which is why policing written text needs to be a high priority after the fact. Not only can it save you from embarrassing mistakes, but it subtly reinforces the faith your reader puts in you.

Here are 5 simple steps you can take to minimize mistakes:

Spellcheck – Don’t Only Spellcheck

Spellcheck is a powerful tool – so much that we often think that it’s the only thing we need to use. But it isn’t; it’s hindered by its own rigidness, and its strange, often unpredictable behavior sometimes yields false positives. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it, only that you shouldn’t depend on it.

The fact is that spellcheck is super powerful if you use it right; treat it as a guide and not as a solution, an opportunity to simplify and speed up the process by eliminating mistakes early on in the process. Once you’ve used it to wipe out the obvious misspellings (and unmark the inevitable false positives), you’ve cleared the ground for a more detailed, fruitful proofing job.

That means taking time and reading through.

Read your work out loud

If you can – and not every office makes this a realistic possibility – step back and read your work out loud. The fact is that, when we’re reading our own copy, we tend to skim; after all, I know what I’m saying already! But if you read aloud, it’s impossible to do that without sounding like you’re suffering from a stroke; that means it means you’re more likely to read slowly, purposefully, and deliberately. Your increased attention level makes it easier to catch errors in the text.

Print before you proof

This is a big one; get your face away from the screen and hunker down with a printout and a red pen. Marking up in a word doc is actually pretty cumbersome and time consuming, so the flexibility and fluency of good, old-fashioned, red-ink markup makes it a much simpler task. Also, the format change reinforces in your mind that you’re doing something new; context helps you transform from a writer into a reader, and suddenly, every “if” that should be an “it” stands in stark relief.  Whatever the reason, mistakes that you miss on the screen seem to jump off the page when you’re staring at a sheet of physical paper.

Note every word

Don’t just print-and-proof; note every single word. Going slowly, read and approve of every word as you pass, marking approved words with a black dot and marking up any mistakes. This is something you do after you’ve read for content and grammar; it’s not going to catch weird sentences, but it’ll nail typos and keep you accountable for any you find.

Wait

Finish your draft, take a sip of your coffee, and get the heck away from your material. Take twenty minutes and do literally anything else. Take a walk. Read a book. Talk with a co-worker. Work on something else. It doesn’t even matter what it is, just so long as you separate yourself from the text. Doing so puts distance between it and yourself, increasing your objectivity as well as giving your brain some time to reboot.

Futz with the margins

This one sounds silly but I swear to God it works. Messing around with the margins totally changes a text. The thing is, we are familiar with whole texts, including where words fall on the page. Changing the margins around rearranges the text fundamentally, so you can’t actually expect a word to show up where and how you expect. Suddenly, a document becomes unfamiliar territory – and it gets a lot easier to see mistakes when nothing is what you expect.

Basically, do whatever it takes to find problems. Reducing your familiarity with a text increases the odds of seeing something off; you gloss over material you feel familiar with. The real key is to find ways to force yourself to read deliberately by getting less comfortable. Once you’ve got an effective strategy, employ it mercilessly – and you’ll find your text’s quality improving.

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