Home » Writing Advice » Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos

Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos

13 August 2014

From Wired:

You have finally finished writing your article. You’ve sweat over your choice of words and agonized about the best way to arrange them to effectively get your point across. You comb for errors, and by the time you publish you are absolutely certain that not a single typo survived. But, the first thing your readers notice isn’t your carefully crafted message, it’s the misspelled word in the fourth sentence.

Typos suck. They are saboteurs, undermining your intent, causing your resume to land in the “pass” pile, or providing sustenance for an army of pedantic critics. Frustratingly, they are usually words you know how to spell, but somehow skimmed over in your rounds of editing. If we are our own harshest critics, why do we miss those annoying little details?

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 writing, you’re trying to convey meaning. It’s a very high level task,” he said.

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). “We don’t catch every detail, we’re not like computers or NSA databases,” said Stafford. “Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.” When we’re reading other peoples’ work, this helps us arrive at meaning faster by using less brain power. When we’re proof reading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. The reason we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.

. . . .

Generalization is the hallmark of all higher-level brain functions. It’s similar to how our brains build maps of familiar places, compiling the sights, smells, and feel of a route. That mental map frees your brain up to think about other things. Sometimes this works against you, like when you accidentally drive to work on your way to a barbecue, because the route to your friend’s house includes a section of your daily commute. We can become blind to details because our brain is operating on instinct. By the time you proof read your own work, your brain already knows the destination.

. . . .

But even if familiarization handicaps your ability to pick out mistakes in the long run, we’re actually pretty awesome at catching ourselves in the act. (According to Microsoft, backspace is the third-most used button on the keyboard.)

Link to the rest at Wired and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Writing Advice

41 Comments to “Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos”

  1. Yes, well, in the first place, the word is spelt tyops.

    At least it damned well should be.

  2. As many typos as I let slip through on blog\forum\facebook\twitter\etc. comments and posts, which I typically don’t notice for hours, days, weeks, or even longer, I will be saving this post to remind myself that I’m not making typos because I’m careless or rushed, but because “what I’m doing is actually very smart.”

  3. Ashe Elton Parker

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I tend not to sweat and agonize over my work. I’m too busy having fun to stress myself out over it. Yes, I do edits and proofreading on my work, whether it be an “article” or fiction, but I don’t have a nervous breakdown if I happen to find a typo in something already out for reader consumption. I simply either correct it myself if I’ve posted/published it myself (on my blog), or notify the proper people if it’s published by someone else and leave it up to them to determine whether they’re going to go to the trouble of correcting it.

    Of course, I’m one of those scary genre writers who sees writing as something that’s incredibly easy–and did I mention fun?–to do, and I prefer not to ruin something so easy and fun with pointless anxieties.

  4. I didn’t click on the link, so maybe this was suggested: read your stuff backwards a word at a time. That way, meaning doesn’t creep in.

  5. Well, they creep in in spite of everything. For me, the reason seems to be that the text is so familiar. Fortunately I have a couple of faithful readers who tell me and I make corrections.

  6. I am fairly certain that typos procreate during the night. When I’ve finished a piece, whehter it be a story or a blog post, I proofread it. The piece is perfect! I walk away. I go to bed. And in the morning, I discover that I was weraing tyops glasses, and that several words were having a “good time” and had mispelled babies in the night. Comma errors also creep in, slogging along the edges of the party that was had, along with other puntuation stuffs.

    It’s not me! It’s them! They breed when you’re not lokoing!

    • I apparently turn out cleaner copy than the average writer, but what I get is breeding punctuation. Many times I have woken up in the morning to discover that a perfectly sound sentence had gone to press with two periods after it..

      You must be right: they multiply during the night.

  7. I also read backwards out loud and I say the punctuation as well. You can catch a lot.

    • I agree with Vera – reading aloud is a great way to catch errors. I go through it once or twice and then read it out loud. This takes a long time , but many errors are caught that had slipped through your silent reading and Word spell checker.

  8. Scetniifc sutdeis hvae sowhn that redaers wlil uderntsand meaning as long as the frsti and lsat letetrs of most wrdos are crorcet. 🙂

    Point taken. And for those of use who proof and edit for a living, it’s a scary concept!

    • What those studies have never bothered to investigate is whether comprehension of the whole text suffers; or what happens if letters are wrong and not merely transposed. What they have never thought of asking, so far as I know, is whether the cognitive burden of sorting out those pestilent letters makes it impossible to reconstruct a story as a series of events in one’s brain.

      Anything that draws the reader’s attention away from the events of the story, and makes it focus on the details of the text, is liable to break the mild trance involved in the reading of narrative prose. One of the great virtues of standardized spelling is that it enables one to read automatically, subconsciously, without pausing to puzzle out words, so that the higher cognitive functions are available to play out the story in one’s mind.

    • Most weirdos are correct? That’s a scary thought.

      • Yes, Jason, most of us ARE correct.

        I assume no responsibility for scaring (or scarring) you, however.

  9. I catch them, but it’s typically after I hit “Send”.

    Sigh.

    • Or the ‘Publish’ button 🙂

      • That’s why I love the edit function on this site.

      • Yes! Why is it that the first thing I see in a CreateSpace physical proof copy is a typo? Grrr! I fix the typo, re-upload, and then the next proof copy inevitably has ruined margins because of something the tech did on their end. So then I must order yet another proof copy. And each of those proof copies takes 7-10 days to arrive, so it feels like forever before I finally click the “approve” button.

        • Plus, typesetting for print gives you all sorts of opportunities for creative formatting errors that are not tyops at all.

          F’rinstance, the book that I just put on CreateSpace, I discovered after getting the physical proofs that the first half of the book had chapter titles in a subtly different font from the second half, because InDesign was being cute with me and messing with my paragraph styles. I didn’t notice it myself till about the third run-through, and even then I had to open the InDesign file and use the text inspector tool to make sure.

          And then I had to play Why What Did That until it stopped doing that.

          • Plus, typesetting for print gives you all sorts of opportunities for creative formatting errors that are not tyops at all.

            LOL! Too true! I just realized today that I need to take proofs out in the sunlight and asses them there. The cover of my current POD project looks fine as a thumbnail onscreen. The cover looks fine under lamplight indoors. The cover even looks fine in daylight indoors. But outdoors? The dropshadow on one element in the image is too hard edged. Grrr!

            • As Bill Clinton might have said, but you’re probably glad he didn’t: I feel your grrr!

              Oh, by the way: Be glad you’re not ordering your proofs to be sent to Canada, which means $20-plus for expedited shipping if you want to see them before your eyes grow old and disappointed and fall out of your head from waiting. In those circumstances, you learn to rely as heavily as possible on the online proofing function, and keep physical proofs to a bare minimum.

              • Be glad you’re not ordering your proofs to be sent to Canada, which means $20-plus for expedited shipping if you want to see them before your eyes grow old and disappointed and fall out of your head from waiting.

                Ouch!

            • seriously JM, in my first book, typeset, seriously, the typesetter must have leaned on the keyboard with elbow so book printed in hardback with a rrrrrrrrrrrrrr in the word ‘rest’. I was embarrassed when several kind readers wrote to wonder if rrrrrrrrrrest was some kind of code, or just a typo. It was a tyrana-typo-rex. Now in indie pub, all my typos are only my own keyboard tripping overs. And reading backward and saying words and punctuation aloud is brilliant. and in my last book proofed by the entire family and myself, there still were a dozen typos… including two lines bolded that should have been regular type, and there for their, and a double the the. Argh. I oughter be a pirate. lo.l

              • It was a tyrana-typo-rex.

                And “tyops” cries for a mythical creature to go with it, don’t you think?

                LOL! Love the typo monsters you and Tom Simon and Bridget McKenna have created here!

                But yes, the various errors that can and do creep into both ebooks and paper books drive me wild. I understand on an intellectual level that, as Dean says, “there are no perfect books.” But I still wish I could make mine perfect.

                • i get exactly what youre saying JM. I read and read, geez on last book there were six proofers, three family and two pro proofers and one stranger we bribed. STILL, there were some typos in printed book. How. How i ask the elves, could that many people catch so much and yet not catch everything. Arghhhhhhhhhhh.

                  I only have one answer; the duendes [these are the creatures often used in our heritage, to scare little children], the goblins creep in at night while we are sleeping and mess things up. They think it is SO funny. Wait’ll i catch one of those and made an example by putting the duende inside a box of a wordless ream of paper. They hate that.

  10. Backspace is the third-most used button on the keyboard?
    What are the two most used? I skimmed the article and didn’t find out. Must. Know. 😐

    • Probably the space bar and the shift key.

      Of course, if you’re using old command-line software in a DOS shell, the combination of CTRL-ALT-SHIFT-(three other keys, one of which you have to hit with your nose) is pretty popular, too. This is why I hated the early versions of WordPerfect.

      • I think you’re right with space bar. Shift…maybe. But what about period? Comma?

        I use DOS and Unix shells in my day job. “ls” and “-” and both “\” and “/” probably get a lot of use there. But not for my writing. Do you? That’s hardcore.

        • No, thankfully I never actually used DOS for my writing. Went straight from 8-bit machines to a Mac, in the days when that was the only machine with a GUI. I found WYSIWYG utterly delightful, and wondered why it took so long for the other computer makers to catch onto the idea.

          Unix, of course, was beyond my means in those days, because you really needed a full-fledged minicomputer to run it well.

  11. I find separation (time) and a format different than how you wrote (don’t proofread in your word processor) helps.

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