Anyone who has worked tirelessly on a writing project and has found a typo despite multiple edits, knows the ultimate frustration of writing: finding your own mistakes. This isn’t unique to just one writer, all of us have felt our stomachs sink just after we press send on the email; “Did I really just type ho instead of how? How did I miss that?”
The good news is that it’s not your fault. Well, not your conscious brain’s fault, at least. Research has shown that familiarity with what you’re editing makes it harder to see errors, and easier for you to miss obvious mistakes while editing. It turns out that part of being a good editor is unfamiliarity with what you’re editing—which is bad news for the writer that just finished a draft and needs to get it out the door right away. As novelist Zadie Smith said in her essay That Crafty Feeling “The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer.” With this in mind, how do you properly edit your own work? How can you change yourself from the writer, to the reader?
Your Brain Is Working Against You
The old adage “familiarity breeds contempt” is fairly accurate when it comes to editing your own work. The more familiar you are with what you’re reading, the more difficult it is to see typos, awkward phrasing, or any other mistakes. Your brain works against your goals, filling in the blanks and glossing over errors in your writing—it knows what you are trying to say, and will read what’s written as if it is saying what you want, whether it’s written that way or not. Psychologist Tom Stafford describes this phenomenon quite well in an article for WIRED: “We don’t catch every detail, we’re not like computers or NSA databases… Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.”
An article in the Journal of Research in Reading confirmed what many writers know through experience: familiarity with a text has a negative impact on detecting errors. This is bad news for writers, as no one is more familiar with what you’ve written than you yourself, making you the worst person possible to detect and fix errors in your own work.
In an ideal world, every writer would have an editor at their beck and call, available to review everything they’ve written before it’s published; but we all know that this is far from reality. Proofreading well means you have to trick your brain into thinking it is reading something for the first time. If the secret to editing is becoming the reader instead of the writer, what can you do to help trick your brain and edit your own work properly?
5 Tips for Editing Your Own Work
The overall key to editing your own work is to make what you’ve written look unfamiliar to you, or to approach it differently than how you wrote it – this will make your brain work harder to understand what was written, and make it more likely for you to see mistakes.
Print It Out
Reading off of a hard copy changes the way type looks and gives your brain more of a tactile interaction with what you’ve written. Something as simple as running your finger over the text while you read it can effectively change the way your brain interprets what you’re reading, and can be key to tricking your brain into thinking it’s reading what you’ve written for the first time.
Read It Out Loud
Using your voice changes the parts of the brain that process what you’ve written, and will make awkward phrasing and difficult sentences more apparent. An added benefit is that reading what you’ve written out loud will help you to see how the text flows: chances are, if what you’ve written doesn’t sound good out loud, it won’t read well on paper.
Read It Backwards
Starting from the last sentence of your work, read what you’ve written backwards. This doesn’t mean reading each individual sentence backwards word by word, but instead reading each sentence individually, out of context. The removal of context allows you to focus on each individual sentence, helping you see mistakes, and making your brain work harder to fill in the blanks.
Sometimes taking a day or two away is the best way to see problems with what you’ve written. If time allows, give yourself a few days in-between writing something and editing it. Even better, work on something else – the change in pace will reset your brain and help you see editing mistakes easier.
Use an Editing Tool
If you’re pressed for time, try using a tool like Grammarly or Hemingway Editor to look over your work. These tools aren’t subjective, but they are very effective at pointing out when you can replace a complicated word for a simpler version, or when you’re using the passive voice (my personal vice).
Stop Your Brain From Sabotaging Your Writing
Ultimately, the best way to get results from your writing is to have someone else look at it. Whether this is a professional editor, or even just a peer, the perspective that a new set of eyes can bring to your writing will improve what you’re trying to say, and reduce the number of mistakes. Though we encourage you to ask for assistance when it comes to editing, these tips will help you tidy up your work if using an editor isn’t an option.
What have you found effective when editing your own work? What is the worst typo you have ever found?
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