Proofreading your own document has to be one of the most annoying things ever. It’s almost as if you spot a typo the minute you hit send on that email or drop off a hard copy document on your manager’s desk. The latter happened to me last week. It wasn’t a major error but I spotted it just as I sat down at my desk. In a
On the other hand, it’s super easy to spot a typo on someone’s else’s document. Why is it so hard to catch our own errors? The term “cognitive blindness” may have something to do with that. Essentially, this means that our brain continues to play tricks on us and so will see things the way it thinks it should be seen, rather than how it really is. When proofreading our own document, therefore, we tend to read it silently the way it should have been written and not the way it actually appears on paper. This means that we may read words that are not actually there, fail to see a double word or the wrong use of words, and so forth.
Unfortunately, the readers’ brain doesn’t. So when you’re tempted to avoid proofreading and simply skim through instead, be conscious that your reader is very likely to notice errors up in an instant.
Why are typos and grammatical errors so horrible? Because they totally take out the attention from the substantive element of your work, and almost question your competence. So whether it’s a blog post, an essay, a review or your CV, the reader is inclined to doubt the core of your work because you failed to catch a simple typo. They forget how nerve-racking it might have been for the writer to read that document over and over!
And perhaps it’s critical in my profession — I am a solicitor — but attention to detail might be the most sought out skill, after the core technical skills.
I love finding hacks for everything. You’re probably thinking “now, what hack could there possibly be to proofreading your own document?” Surely you simply just re-read multiple times, correcting any errors as you go?
That’s fair if you’ve got all the time on your hands and if you’re immune to cognitive blindness. I frequently use the two tips that are often recommended to help to win the battle with the brain. These are “get a fresh pair of eyes” to help proofread the document or “sleep on it” and look it over the next day or after a few hours.
Such tips are helpful when it’s not an instant document you have to turn around.
In these days of tech, other often cited tips are grammar editors like Microsoft Word spell check and Grammarly. The latter could be installed on your browser and helps proofread any documents typed with that device — from emails to essays.
While I find these generally useful for broad errors, many times a few still slip through. This is because such editors often lack context; they have no idea what you intended to write. So you may have omitted a word or spelt it differently, but such errors wouldn’t be flagged if the overall sentence or phrase still made sense.
Some people also recommend reading each word aloud. Sure you can do that in the safety of your home office, but not when you share an open plan workspace with a bunch of colleagues — all of whom are intensely trying to focus.
So, what to do then? A combination of these 4 tips below is often unbeatable.
I wish I didn’t have to recommend this, and sometimes I feel bad for the amount of printing and waste of paper this encourages. Good thing is I always recycle. But printing your work makes such a difference. It’s almost as if the brain views it afresh simple because it’s on a different media. You’re also able to spot double spaces, and missing punctuation quicker. For added efficiency, use a pen while reading the words line after line. It works.
If you’re unable to print, or even before you print, you should totally do this. When you proofread your piece in the same format you wrote it, or the format you read it the first time, your brain gets stuck on that. So you need to switch things up.
Zoom your page from 100 to 200% or about 165 and then read it once more. Then zoom out to 75% and read again. Switch the fonts as well if you can, especially if you’ve used the same font in the document. You can simply do a Ctrl A or use the select all function and change, for example, from Arial to Calibri. All of this makes your brain view the page as a somewhat fresh piece of work and helps you spot errors more easily. You could also view in web layout, view as two pages and generally just trick you brain into looking at it as a fresh document.
I have a colleague who struggled with double spaces on a document — hitting the spacebar twice between two words and throughout the document. Their hack to get around this is to use the search function and then search for double spaces by hitting the spacebar twice. It worked like magic and now I do it too. It’s super quick as well.
If you don’t have the double space issue, the search box is also super useful to double check important words like people or company names, years etc. This is particularly relevant when you’re working from an existing template like a cover letter or report and intend to update it to suit new circumstances.
Finally, the search function is great for words that are easily mixed up — either because such words are homonyms or we just tend to mix them up generally in writing. So words like there/their/they’re, its/it’s, you’re/your, etc. If you often confuse specific words, make sure you’re using the search box as well to find these!
I absolutely love this hack! And it’s a great way to not only get around cognitive blindness but to actually make sure we are proofreading the entire document. Why is this useful? Because many times, we start reading a document from the top, spotting errors with fresh energy and vigour. But by the time we get to the middle of the document, this vigour wanes and we might often do a quick skim.
We repeat the process of proofreading again, but cognitive blindness sets in because our brain has processed the document in that format. To avoid this, after the first set of proofreading from top to bottom, start from bottom to top. Begin from the last paragraph and work your way up to the introductions. You could also switch this up by picking random paragraphs in the middle, top or bottom and then reading them afresh. It’s a game changer!
If it’s a really important document, make sure you’re using all of these and more. Grave mistakes in documents can have far-reaching consequences.
Do you struggle with typos and proofreading your own document? Which of these and other hacks do you use?