I agree with all the above advice from David Ogilvy on how to write anything actually – but definitely how to write business contents. I particularly agree with points 7 and 8: Never send a letter or memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning, then edit it. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.

Getting someone else to edit, correct and improve your writing is one of those thing that most people think they do not need to do. However, there are factual bases for doing it:

  1. Your eyes can only take in a limited amount of information at any one time and you have limits to what and how you see.
  2. Your brain is hardwired not to notice mistakes, and to auto-complete and auto-correct incomplete or wrong input.
  3. You have a language ego that will prevent you from seeing that your own writing is crappy.

How to be your own proofreader and bypass these processes

  1. Repeat the exercise tomorrow.
  2. Read for one problem at a time.
  3. Read it in a different medium.
  4. Read your text aloud. 
  5. Read it backwards.
  6. Get a peer review done. 
  7. Give it to someone else to proofread.

The lengthy explanations are below. But if you don’t read them, you will not realize how essential it is that you do these seven steps listed above. Fair warning!

Limits of the eyes

The normal (monocular) human visual field extends to approximately 60 degrees nasally (toward the nose, or inward) from the vertical meridian in each eye, to 107 degrees temporally (away from the nose, or outwards) from the vertical meridian, and approximately 70 degrees above and 80 below the horizontal meridian. Both eyes combined, the binocular visual field, is the superimposition of the two monocular fields on each other – they overlap.

Often, people have problems with their field of vision, either with the peripheral vision, or colour vision, etc. If we had eyes on the sides of our heads, like rabbits, or our heads could swivel around, like owls, we would be able so see more at any one moment.

A humorous look at the complexities of human vision by xkcd, a.k.a. American author Randall Munroe.

This is a huge generalization, but when you look at a page of letters, you fixate on one letter, as well as roughly 11 characters around it, that’s the reading span allowed by your eyes.

So to see the rest of the sentence(s) your eyes “regress”, go back on the line, or forward again. That is the “saccadic movement” of your eyes – one of several miniscule types of movements your eyeballs make all the time. Interestingly, in Chinese and Japanese “…where each character conveys more information than English letters do, readers see fewer letters per fixation.” (James W. Kalat, Introduction to Psychology, p. 284). So basically, you see a word and a bit of the context of the word. You cannot read, unless your eyes’ movements are fixated on one spot. And here’s the problem:

Your brain continuously makes sense of what you see, for instance the words on the page, the website the words are on, the iPad the website is on, etc., by finding the meaning of what you see from the context (the other words on the page), your past experience and the existing information in your head. 

The way your brain processes information

Apart from interpreting what you see from context, or from what you saw before, or from what you have associated it with in the past, the brain also recognizes images based on previous traces of images.

Some theories say that the brain remembers an “iconic trace” from looking at an image. “This could imply that information can be processed continuously on the basis of what is abstracted from the external stimulus and its iconic trace. Information from successive fixations and iconic traces would be similar in terms of gross physical qualities and could be integrated into a single sense of the object being perceived.” (Seamon, John G., Memory & Cognition, p. 34) A great deal of what we see is pattern recognition, a process by which we recognize something based on the pattern of which it is a part.

This test revealed that increasing levels of detail generates increasing levels of recognition. (Guthrie, G. and Wiener, M., Subliminal perception or perception of partial cue with pictorial stimuli, in, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1966).

So, if you saw “don’t proofread your own stuff” in the title of this post, it was due to your brain’s genius ability to complete and correct what you saw. You would’ve recognized that “proof” usually goes with “read” therefore it is likely that the word is “proofread” not “proofraed”. Only people who are used to reversing the process to undo the brain’s natural capacity for auto-correct (like a professional proofreader) would have noticed the “proofraed” first time.

How your brain deals with wrong or incomplete information

So, your brain has multiple mechanisms to process multiple stimuli, and process incomplete or wrong information. These entirely automatic processes, which occur all the time in your brain, are your way of dealing with external stimuli, paying attention, and remembering. They are:

  1. Grouping – Humans tend to group any amount of simultaneous stimuli to a pattern, symmetrical shape, meaningful form or “gestalt”. So, the brain will “auto-fill” the missing parts of the pattern. So you will see “she opened the front and went inside to put down the groceries”. Your brain will complete the pattern and understand that it was the front door. Not the window, or the gate.
  2. Contour and completion – This same ability to make wholes of partial information, appears in the brain’s ability to complete incomplete shapes by filling in gaps or incomplete parts of the shape. This is possible through referring to past experiences. You will automatically guess at a missing word and complete a sentence. And you can make sense of a tweet or text with missing or abbreviated or contracted words, so long as you know the language.

    The logo for the Space Channel’s program, Innerspace – a good example of how contour and completion works. Even if you didn’t know the name, there are enough outlines so you can guess the e is missing.
  3. Background and foreground – You can actually figure out what is the object and what is the background, or what is the “dingcharakter” or thing, and what is the formless surrounds, the “stoffcharakter” that you are seeing. So you look at a page, and certain things will jump out at you, but due to your ability to group and complete, you might not see the missing or wrong word on a page, since they might all be similar in appearance. (From: Du Toit, J.M. and Van der Merwe, A.B., Psychology – A General Introduction, chapter 6, Visual perception) That is why it is challenging and frustrating to “find Waldo”. And that is why we use caps, bold, underline or italics in text.
Where’s Waldo? by Martin Handford. (Clue: look at the tents.)

Our brains are finely tuned engines that compensate for wrong or missing words, considering the limits to what our eyes can actually take in. (Not so much for wrong or missing information!)

The language ego

First defined by researcher Alexander Guiora, the language ego (“ego” as in “self”) is “the identity a person develops in reference to the language he or she speaks”. Language development in the brain is usually completed and established at about the age of 10 years, and after that it is difficult to learn another language at the same level of proficiency as a mother tongue. (So parents, give your kids a head start and teach them multiple languages before they are teenagers.)

This means that you will automatically think that what you write, your expressions, are right and perfect. You will not notice your own mistakes or your bad style or the inappropriateness of your tone. Don’t you just hate it when someone corrects your grammar or pronunciation? Do you associate certain ways of speaking and writing with a certain class or status? Does it drive you nuts when you have “autocorrect” switched on and Word replaces your carefully chosen word with another one? If “yes” on all counts, the language ego is why.

Imagine then how hard it must be to write in someone else’s “voice”, in other words, to write like someone does or for someone else, like speechwriters do. This is also why adults are often shy to express themselves in a learned second or foreign language, while children are not, and why it often loosens your tongue to have a drink before you try and speak in a foreign tongue. Of course, your new language skills will go down the drain but you won’t mind as much that you sound bad!

Personally, as a writer, when someone notices a spelling or grammar mistake in my writing, I get HUGELY offended  and totally mortified. I immediately want to find it and correct it. I long for reaching that 100% perfect level in my documents but in reality I seldom get beyond about 98%. There are always one or two mistakes that elude me.

In coding, proofreading is straightforward. One space, one letter, one number that’s wrong, and it just doesn’t work. Simple. So you know there is a mistake. But in normal text, you have to hunt for the errors. However, even when writing code, best practice dictates that you do peer reviewing.

The bottom line is you can only subvert your own mental processes with conscious effort.

How to be your own proofreader

Considering that you are built to avoid picking up errors, it is essential that you do like professional proofreaders do.

  1. Repeat the exercise tomorrow. If you proofread it again tomorrow, the repeated stimulus will be stronger and you might notice the “off” word.
  2. Read for one problem at a time. Set out to check spelling, then verbs, then punctuation, then flow. If you make the process conscious, not unconscious, you will find the mistakes. It takes time, though.
  3. Read it in a different medium. If your document is on a laptop, print it out. And vice versa. Reading it in a different format changes the visual context and allows you to pay attention differently.
  4. Read your text aloud, since using a different sense also changes the way your brain processes the information. This is particularly good for speeches.
  5. Read it backward. If you want to avoid the whole problem with your eyes and the field of vision, and also autocompletion, etc., read sentences bottom to top (in English). It is painful, but it breaks the text into discrete words which will show up mistakes. Reading right to left will only help you to pick up spelling mistakes in discrete words, not mistakes in sentence construction.
  6. Get a peer review  done. A peer review involves having a peer – someone with your knowledge in your line of work – examine your text for errors. It won’t work to give it to someone who knows nada about your stuff. To be effective, the peer should either already be familiar with the contents, or should be given the text in advance. When the reviewer meets with the writer, the writer should present the text with explanations of how it works or what the objective of the text is. The reviewer’s role is to detect errors both in the document and in the document’s effectiveness. For instance, if you give a proposal to someone to peer review, this person should know all the background to the proposal, but also check whether it is responsive and compliant. It is then up to you to correct the mistakes.

    “Much of the benefit of a peer review derives from the psychology of presenting how something works. Often the writer discovers his or her own errors during the review. In any case, it is useful to have an outsider review your work in order to get a different perspective and to discover blind spots that seem to be inherent in evaluating your own work. Like code tracing, peer reviews can be time consuming.” (Source: University of Minnesota Duluth, Software Engineering)

  7. Lastly, most importantly, assume that even if you do all this, you will still have mistakes. I recently spent a week painstakingly checking and double-checking a book I was producing, doing all of the above with the text. Even with doing that and with the program’s grammar and spell-checker, there was still a typo in the punctuation, and three instances where the fonts didn’t match. Aaaaaagh!!! Therefore, give your document to someone else to proofread – like David Ogilvy advised. If it is important, it is worth doing. Just get over yourself and get them to proofread it. If you have someone who can help you, use them. Sadly, I only have me.

To all the concerned folks who occasionally point out my typos in these posts, and my previous employers and clients who did the same, now you know why!

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