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Self-Editing Sucks, and Science Says So

You’ve just completed an amazing blog article. It was a well-thought-out piece, chock-full of quotes and statistics – even a little bit of well-placed humor. Now, there’s only one thing left to do: hit send!

But then, as soon as your work is sent off into the interwebs, you take another congratulatory look at your work.

And that’s when you spot it.

Right there, in the middle of your masterpiece, sits a big, fat, ugly typo.

Yep, it can be challenge writing without an editor; proofreading your own work is often easier said than done.

So…did you catch the mistake in that sentence above?

There’s a missing “a,” of course, which I intentionally left out for the purposes of this story. You likely caught it as a reader, but as the author of that line, I’m more apt to breeze right past it when proofreading.

Therein lies the problem; what a writer reads and what the audience reads can be very different.

So why is it so difficult to proofread your own work? Thankfully, science has the answer!

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Meet Tom Stafford, a cognitive scientist who, among other things, studies typos at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. Yes, this really is a thing.

According to Stafford, typo-typing copywriters are not careless; in fact, they’re actually really smart! (who didn’t know that). "When you're writing, you're trying to convey meaning. It's a very high-level task," says Stafford.

“As with all high-level tasks, your brain generalizes simple, component parts (like turning letters into words and words into sentences) so it can focus on more complex tasks (like combining sentences into complex ideas).”

Since I didn’t study cognitive science, Stafford is kind enough to break it down further.

Basically, when we're proofing our own writing, we already know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be present, it's easier for us to miss it when parts are left out. What we see on the computer screen is competing with the version that’s in our head.

Of course, when someone else is editing your work, they are seeing it for the first time; they have no preconceived notions about the content’s intent, so they pay more attention to what is actually written. That makes them much better equipped to catch your typos.

To avoid that fight between your eyes and your brain, here are a few self-editing and proofreading methods I employ that may help you.

5 Methods to Try When Self-Editing Your Work

1. Step Away From It.

It’s tempting to ship off your work the moment you’ve completed it and check it off your to-do list.

However, unless you’re against a deadline, it can help to hold off and revisit your work in an hour or two (the longer, the better). Your brain will have had time to “forget” exactly what you wrote, and now your eyes will be able to spot mistakes or misspellings.

2. Read It Out Loud.

I’m not talking about mumbling the words under your breath at your desk – I mean literally stepping away from your current environment and reading your work aloud, as if presenting to a roomful of people.

You may be surprised at the errors you’ll uncover!

3. Reformat It.

I don’t know that there’s any science to this, but it often helps me to put my work into a different font or size when proofreading. I’m guessing it has something to do with tricking the brain into believing it’s seeing something new for the first time, but probably only Tom Stafford knows for sure!

4. Print It Out.

This goes hand-in-hand with reformatting; for me, getting a physical copy takes my eyes away from the computer screen and often brings errors to light. Just be sure to recycle!

5. Install Grammarly.

While not perfect, Grammarly can pick up mistakes your spell checker misses, and it’s not very intrusive with suggestions.

Of course, there are plenty of other techniques for self-editing and self-proofing. For example, this site suggests reading your work backward, or even upside down. I don’t know about you, but I can’t even recite the alphabet backward, let alone read paragraphs in reverse!

And as for reading my work upside down?

Typos are awful. They undermine your credibility and invite criticism from clients or random readers. So, always try to get a second set of eyes on your work, and if that’s not possible, try one of the five tips that usually work for me.

Or, you can always read your work backward while hanging upside down.


Brad Hadfield

Brad Hadfield

With 20+ years of advertising experience, I've written for many brands across all forms of media. Today, I put that experience to work for clients as an inbound marketer. A WMU graduate, I moved to Florida for year-round boating. When not on the water, I enjoy traveling (25 countries and counting).