Proofreading: why is it so difficult to spot your own typos?

Published on November 29th, 2016


In the days of modern spellcheckers, predictive text and other writing tools, typos should be a thing of the past – right? Well, unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Despite technology’s best efforts, the current crop of editing tools are nowhere near sophisticated enough to spot and fix all our mistakes.

Not that we can judge. Us humans can have a tough time with editing too, especially when it comes to proofreading our own work. This is because our brains play tricks on us as we read and write, often making obvious mistakes invisible to us.

So what’s going on here? Why is it so difficult to spot your own typos and writing errors when other people see them so clearly?


How self-editing generally works (or doesn’t)

Our guys in proofreading services know all too well how the self-editing process plays out.

The reasons it’s so difficult to spot your own errors is because of how your brain works. The first time you run through any kind of document, you may spot a typo every few sentences and find entire paragraphs that need reworking.

Run though the same document a second time and you’ll often spot one or two typos you missed the first time. You many even find some mistakes in one of those paragraphs you ‘fixed’. Where as sometimes you’re literally adding mistakes as you edit!

Eventually you’ll come to a final draft where you can’t spot any more mistakes. Job done. Finally!

Except the document comes back to you with five missed typos and a couple of sentences highlighted, asking what on Earth they’re supposed to mean.

You’re dumbfounded. You feel two-inches tall and can’t explain how a smart person like yourself managed to miss basic errors during multiple proofreading sessions. However, there’s no need to beat yourself up about it. The truth is proofreading your own work is a no-no. This is why professional editors and proofreaders exist in the first place.


Your brain tricks you (far more than you realise)

None of the above happens because you’re an idiot or any less intelligent than the person who spotted your errors. Instead, you’ve been tricked by your own brain – not only during the writing process but also in your self-editing.

This very same topic was covered by Wired in 2014, where they cited typo expert Tom Stafford: “The reason typos get through isn’t because we’re stupid or careless, it’s because what we’re doing is actually very smart, explains psychologist Tom Stafford, who studies typos of the University of Sheffield in the UK.”


When you’re write anything – whether it’s an article or simple instructions – your job is to condense information into something that’s easy to understand. You’re turning something complex into something simple and this is a difficult process.

Speaking to Wired Tom added that: “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).”

When this happens, you stop seeing letters and words as they appear on the page and start seeing them as your brain interprets them. The funny thing is readers don’t actually read the words they see on a page either; they recognise them. We anticipate the next word coming, read the start of it and instantly know how to finish it off – unless it’s a word we’ve never come across before.

This is why new words stop us in our tracks. We actually have to read them.


Sooner or later, we stop seeing typos

Despite our brains working against us, we’re still pretty good at spotting our own errors. We’re considerably better than spell checkers, that’s for sure, and even published books can let the odd typo or mistake make it through to printing.

The problem is we eventually stop seeing typos, for the reasons covered above. Interestingly, some readers will even miss certain typos because their brain is in recognition mode, not reading mode as we expect it.

However, we’re far more likely to spot typos and errors in other people’s work, even after they’ve missed them multiple times. This is because we’re reading the text for the first time so were reading it with more awareness.

Tom Concludes “By the time you proof read your own work, your brain already knows the destination. This explains why your readers are more likely to pick up on your errors.

“Even if you are using words and concepts that they are also familiar with, their brains are on this journey for the first time, so they are paying more attention to the details along the way and not anticipating the final destination.”

This is why editing teams are so highly paid at major publications and proofreading services are still in demand. Every word you publish, every letter you send to partners or customers puts your brand reputation on the line. So don’t trust your own eyes when it comes to editing, because they have a long history of tricking us.

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Posted on: November 29th, 2016