Why we all Make Typos – and What to do About it

When you write for a living, missing a typo is incredibly embarrassing. It makes you look unprofessional, sloppy and lazy. And if you have no proofreader, it’s nearly inevitable. You hang your head and vow to do better the next time.

You can imagine how thrilled we were when we came across this article in Wired magazine that seeks to explain why we make mistakes – and why not catching them actually suggests we’re kind of smart.

The article’s author interviews psychologist Tom Stafford, who studies typos at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom (What a cool job!) “When you’re writing, you’re trying to convey meaning. It’s a very high level task,” he said.

The article goes on: “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.”

Stafford goes on to explain that when we proofread our own work we know the meaning we are trying to convey, so we miss misspelled words (like their/there) and garbled phrases because we know what they are supposed to mean.

The complete article is a terrific read. We’d particularly suggest it to anyone you work with that is highly critical when someone makes a typo. There is also some great advice from Stafford on how to trick your brain into seeing the material as new so you can effectively proofread it.

  • Change the font.
  • Change the background color.
  • Print it out and edit it by hand.

We would also add the technique of reading the item aloud. But more importantly, we’d like to make the case for not expecting writers to work in a silo. Teams should edit each other’s work, or consider hiring a copyeditor. Remember, the reason someone is a good writer is because they can take complex ideas and turn them into clear copy.

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