Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Why Is Proofreading So Difficult?

Is proofreading difficult because we just don’t see errors, especially our own? 

My husband and I were watching “Brain Games” on National Geographic Channel. (Yes, we need to get a life!) On the episode, “Seeing Is Believing,” the host, Jason Silva, had people read a sentence. No one saw the error, although I’m proud to say I did! Then, Jason had them read the sentence aloud, and still no one found the double the.

Making a case that finding mistakes is a difficult task, Debra Hart May, the author of Proofreading Plain and Simple, states: “Gestalt psychologists were the first to discover that our minds tend to see things not as they are, but as our minds think they should be.” Are we doomed not to catch errors?

To further support the difficulty to find errors, May quotes Carolyn Bloomer from her book, Principles of Visual Perception:

“This strong tendency of the mind to ‘correct’ stimuli…explains why proofreading is a difficult task: Your mental ‘correcting’ tends to tune out the very errors you are looking for.”

Okay, proofreading isn’t easy. Even the professionals miss mistakes! However, you need to do it! Your professional image depends on it.

My favorite proofreading advice is to read the copy aloud. Reading aloud forces you to slow down to read each word. Using your finger as a guide can help, too.

Are you thinking, if the people on “Brain Games” didn’t see the second the when they read the sentence aloud, how will I? Technology can help; Microsoft Word flags repeated words.

Here’s another tip. Create a proofreading checklist. Checklists help people avoid errors, according to Atul Gawande the author of The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Pilots, doctors, and many other professionals use them to prevent errors. Why not use a checklist during the proofreading process to remind you to look for common errors, too?

Are you aware of some of the errors you make? For example, do you often type by for my? Form for from? You for your? Add those commonly mistyped words to your proofreading checklist.

An easy way to find these errors is to use CTRL+F to search for the common errors you make. The wrong word is a word, just not the right word. These errors are not easy to find, so use technology to help you find them.

Three more items to include in your proofreading checklist are

  • Check titles and headings. People tend to skip these words and focus only on paragraphs. If a category heading on your resume has a typo, will you get an interview? 
  • Read subject lines. If there’s a typo in your subject line, will the reader open your e-mail? 
  • Verify dates and times. Does the day of the week correspond to the date? Do the date and year make sense? Check times for meetings and workshops. Double-checking dates and times saves you time by not having to send a correction and by not having to read everyone’s e-mail correcting you.

Even though you may find proofreading to be a difficult and boring task, it’s a necessary evil if you want to enhance your professional image. While proofreading errors aren’t a life or death situation as medical or aviation errors might be, errors may be the reason for not getting the interview or for not getting the opportunity to present your sales pitch. A proofreading checklist could help guide you through the process.

What will you add to your proofreading checklist? What do you do to ensure you don’t have an error?

Judy Beaver


  1. One of my jobs as an accountant way back when was to proofread the annual report of the major company I worked for (fortunately I've gotten a life since then!). My staff and I used to read it backwards as a way to catch errors we might have otherwise missed. It also helped us stay awake!

  2. Sue,

    Thanks for sharing this tip. Debra Hart May (mentioned in the article) states in her book, PROOFREADING PLAIN AND SIMPLE:

    "...reading backwards is extremely tedious. One proofreading handbook for publishing professionals even calls reading backwards 'unnecessary torture.'"

    You can identify, right?

    May goes on to say that it's the single best way to find certain types of spelling errors and other errors that are hard to catch.

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  11. This is what we take things easy or difficult. proofreading is very important that's why we take it difficult so don't be panic. Read youe writing carefully and try to mange it.

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