“Hey, Mom, did you see this? ‘Caesar salad’ is spelled wrong. And look, the text in this line is smaller than the text in the next line. Why don’t people check their menus?”
Misspellings, typos, and inconsistencies have always been major pet peeves of mine. Ever since I was a little kid, I have noticed typos in menus, advertisements, books, and public signs. Thankfully, I didn’t have access to email back then, because I would have sent angry emails all the time!
Ugh. Errors and typos are the worst! They are so irritating.
I was born to be a proofreader. I love that when I run a spell check after I finish reviewing a piece, no errors are identified.
If I send a text message to thank someone for doing something for me and I get a reply that reads, “Your welcome,” I cringe a bit. It’s an occupational hazard — a blessing and a curse — which is what makes me a great proofreader. (Pat on the back.)
I am a proofreader, so I’m supposed to notice and be irked by grammatical and typographical errors. When editors review a piece of content for a writer, they identify any issues with readability, style and voice consistency, idea clarity and structure, and the target audience. Although they also copy edit the document to look for spelling and grammatical errors, find mistakes with punctuation, and check facts and sources, proofreaders follow those same steps to find any remaining errors during the final stage in the process before it is prepared for layout and publication. They are the last line of defense to make sure the document is perfect before it is published.
Not everyone catches these types of errors. Even those who do still make mistakes from time to time.
Even the most thorough of proofreaders miss errors occasionally. So why does this happen, even though these people are in the business of finding and pointing out typos and grammatical errors?
Why can’t they spot all the typos?
The Science Behind Missing Errors
There may be a scientific explanation for why people can’t identify all the typos in a piece of content.
We all miss errors from time to time — writers, proofreaders, and everyone in between. But proofreaders have a special “something” in their brain that allows them to catch errors that others might not be able to find. They look at things in a different way and have trained their brains to notice inconsistencies that don’t stand out to other people.
But, of course, even with their special skills, science allows proofreaders to still miss some things occasionally.
Have you ever gotten the feeling your mind was playing tricks on you?
Turns out, it was.
Our brain tricks us into thinking what we are reading is correct. It allows us to read what we think we should see on the page instead of actually reading the text word for word.
In her book Being Wrong, Kathryn Schultz explains that we continually take sensory messages from the world and unconsciously change them to some extent.
Take the figure below, for example.
Many people would skip right over the typo of two “the’s” because they’re on two different lines. Also, we expect there to be only one “the,” so the sentence reads correctly to us.
Another example of this is that removing the vowels from or rearranging the letters in each word of a sentence can still allow you to read the text. For example, “snetenec” instead of “sentence” or “hte” instead of “the” may still be able to be read.
Most of us have seen the paragraph below and thought, “wow, I can’t believe I could read that.”
Basically, our brain makes us think the words are spelled correctly. We believe what we read, even if we know it’s wrong.
As in many facets of life, we see what we want to see. It’s almost impossible for us to look at a word and not be able to read it, even if it is misspelled or if certain letters are transposed.
Why Would Someone Hire a Proofreader, Anyway?
Right about now, you’re probably wondering if you should even bother hiring someone to review your content if proofreaders still might not catch all the errors in your pieces.
It’s worth it.
Blind spots can crop up when writers work heavily on a single piece. This occurs when they are too close to their work. They are so familiar with the piece they’re working on that they don’t notice errors that a proofreader would pick up on.
While they’re reading a piece, they are seeing it as it appears in their mind as opposed to what is actually written on the page.
When you are reading your own work or reviewing something you have already looked at several times before, your eyes might read over the sentences, but all you’re really aware of is the points you’re trying to get across instead of the words you’re using to express the meaning.
It’s a process called generalization — your mind’s shortcut for retaining information. While reading, sometimes your brain is on autopilot, and that’s why you miss errors that should otherwise jump out at you.
When I write something, I need to review everything in a piece word for word at least twice to make sure I catch as many errors as possible to try to overcome the natural inclination of my mind to see what I want to see on the page. If I read an article three times, I will find errors each time I review it. I often think, “How did I miss that the first time around?”
You might not have enough time to thoroughly re-read your content or blog pieces before posting them because you are busy with so many other aspects of your business.
Enter the proofreader.
Although the same thing can happen to proofreaders who spend a lot of time working on one particular piece of content, they are still able to catch mistakes because they are not the creators of the content. Since they are not as close to the material, they will be able to spot typos and other inconsistencies easier than the author of the piece.
Even if 100 percent of the errors aren’t always found, think about how many errors could be caught in your content and how much the content could be improved by an eagle-eye review from someone external.
Hiring a Reliable Proofreader
There are several ways to find a stellar proofreader; you just need to know what to look for.
Check their resume to make sure they have had previous work experience as a proofreader, editor, or copy editor. If they are confident in their ability, they will not hesitate to provide you with references that can verify their skill level and proofreading ability.
Although there aren’t really certification programs for proofreaders, there are certificate programs and other courses available, so you can look for someone who has taken these courses. Or you can see if they received a college degree in English, journalism, or a related field.
One of the best ways to check a proofreader’s skills is to give them a proofreading test. You can take excerpts from an existing piece of your published content and put mistakes in it. If they find and revise all the errors in the copy (and maybe some errors that were missed when the content was originally published), you should feel more comfortable hiring them for the job.
Ask the proofreader what their process is for reviewing a document. Good proofreaders should follow certain steps each time they review a new piece of content.
Do Proofreaders Have a Process for Reviewing Their Work?
Many people may think proofreaders simply read through a piece to make sure it sounds good. That could not be farther from the truth.
According to Yuka Igarashi’s piece in The Guardian, proofreaders need to read the text on a page without using their brains. They need to look at words differently — in a way that goes against all the brain’s natural instincts when it sees words.
Proofreaders check for many things in a piece of content. Though each proofreader has their own process for reviewing content, they all generally look for the same types of errors in a piece. But some proofreaders definitely go the extra mile to make sure they catch everything.
What processes do proofreaders follow in order to find as many typos and inconsistencies as possible?
Performing a spell check is important, as spell checkers on computers might miss certain errors. If there are words that are frequently misspelled, proofreaders should check for those words and make sure they’re spelled correctly. Proofreaders can perform a search for “the the,” as that might be something a spell checker will miss. If they know something is usually a sticking point in their work — like using “compliment” instead of “complement” — they should be hyper aware of checking those words each time they work on a new document, as spell check might not catch issues with homophones.
Checking for grammatical errors is an essential step in the process. Proofreaders check for subject/verb agreement and pronoun/antecedent agreement, and they make sure the verb tenses are consistent.
Fact checking is an important aspect of proofreading. If a piece includes data in tables and simple math is involved, proofreaders should check the figures to make sure they’re correct. Proper names should be checked. If there are names of towns or businesses a proofreader isn’t familiar with, they need to check those to make sure the correct spelling and capitalization are used.
Punctuation errors can present major problems. For example, “Let’s eat, kids!” is a lot less terrifying than “Let’s eat kids!” Ensuring proper placement of commas, making sure there are no double periods, and finding missing quotation marks at the end of a quote all help to ensure clean content.
Proofreaders check for formatting errors. There might be too much space between paragraphs or individual lines. One paragraph could be double-spaced and the next single-spaced. If proofreaders can’t usually find two spaces in a row at the end of a sentence just by looking, they should do a search for two spaces and delete any extra spaces throughout a piece.
Is 11pt Arial font used in one sentence and 10pt Times New Roman used in the next one? These are errors that should be caught by good proofreaders.
Checking for style errors is necessary, particularly if proofreaders review documents for more than one company. They need to follow companies’ specific style guides. If your company prefers to use no space around an em dash, it should be included in your style guide, and that error should not exist when you receive a document back from your proofreader.
Reading aloud is a good step for proofreaders to include in their process. I know I can find more errors if I read the text out loud; it helps me fight off my brain’s urges to assume everything is correct.
Proofreaders can also find more problems with the flow of the text and can more easily remember things from previous sections (“Didn’t I just read that a couple of minutes ago?”), so they can point out if something is a repeat of what was already covered in an earlier paragraph.
Printing out their work can also help proofreaders identify more errors. It’s not very green to print out pages and pages of documents, but for whatever reason, sometimes it’s easier to find more typos on paper than on a computer screen. Extra spaces or variations in fonts and point sizes can jump out more when reviewing something on a physical sheet of paper.
Reading through a piece one line of text at a time enables proofreaders to fight off the urge to pay attention to the piece as a whole instead of finding mistakes that can be lost within paragraphs. Reading line-by-line backward is also a good way to spot those elusive errors.
“Read your paper backward, sentence by sentence, as a final proofreading step. This technique isolates each sentence and makes it easier to spot errors you may have overlooked in previous readings.” – Claire B. May and Gordon S. May
To put it simply, proofreaders look at words on a page in a different way, and then there are definitely some techniques and tricks proofreaders will use to help find and eliminate typos in the pieces they review.
When typos aren’t caught, it certainly is not due to a lack of effort.
Done Is Better Than Perfect, Right? Wrong.
One reason typos still exist despite technology and autocorrect is the “done is better than perfect” mentality; sometimes, people just have to get things done and think it’s not worth it to spend the extra time reviewing their work.
Not true. Embarrassing errors can occur if people don’t take an adequate amount of time to review their work. Typos aren’t just humiliating — sometimes they can be costly. Imagine including a typo in a publication that cost a company thousands — if not millions — of dollars!
The people responsible for these kinds of typos probably would have rather spent more time reviewing their work instead of becoming the butt of a joke in an article.
It’s always worth taking the time to check everything thoroughly or hire a proofreader to do this for you. Otherwise, you might spend more time (and money) later making up for mistakes. Proofreading is necessary to catch as many errors as possible so you don’t find yourself in an embarrassing situation.
Proofreaders Can Improve Your Credibility
Proofreaders can polish your work and make you sound more credible, but they can only do that if given the appropriate amount of time needed to review a piece.
The longer proofreaders pore over a piece, the more errors they’ll find.
Shorter turnaround times mean a greater chance for errors. The more times proofreaders look at a piece, the more errors they will find. However, for some projects, proofreaders have to work more quickly than is ideal because of an impending deadline or a set budget.
That can lead to more errors. Some companies try to post a myriad of news items and get them proofread as quickly as possible so their customers can gobble up as much information as they can on a daily basis. But they churn out so much content that their proofreaders don’t have enough time to find all the errors.
Sure, a mistake in an online-only piece is not as egregious as one in a print piece, as the change will “stick” longer in the printed piece. But it can still be damaging to a company’s reputation.
People may think you aren’t credible if they find typos in your writing. So it’s well worth the time to have a proofreader review your materials meticulously!
That might mean that your company can publish only one or two articles per week. Posting one or two high-quality pieces of content might be more valuable than posting six pieces of sub-par material.
I’ve heard before in my proofreading and editing career, “Just give it a quick read or a once-over. Don’t spend too much time on it.”
I can’t do a quick and dirty edit!
There’s a big difference between hastily reviewing something simply to get it done and doing all you can within the allotted timeframe to improve upon a piece. Allowing ample time for proofreaders to review your content will help ensure you publish error-free content and show a good face to your customers.
Just because something was done quickly doesn’t mean it was done well. Highly skilled proofreaders can make a huge difference in the quality of your content.
How to Communicate With Your Proofreaders When You Aren’t Happy With Their Work
What if given all that due diligence, and after following all the steps in the proofreading process, proofreaders still aren’t providing high-quality work for you?
First, you should make sure you provided the proofreader with all the information they need to perform their job well. Did you provide a style guide that lets them know what main style manual you follow (e.g., “AP Stylebook,” “Chicago Manual of Style”)? In the style guide, you can include notes about exceptions to the preferred style manual as well as any specific things they should pay close attention to when reviewing your documents.
The relationship between a proofreader and a writer is reciprocal, so it’s important that you share your expectations with someone who is doing a job for you. Proofreaders are not mindreaders (well, maybe some are, but not as their main job), so you can’t expect them to know things that aren’t clarified anywhere.
It’s not easy being the bearer of bad news. What’s the best way to communicate your grievances to proofreaders who miss typos, considering how much it can affect your content?
Point out specific errors, especially if it’s one that happens over and over. You can say something like, “I noticed you always miss it when someone misspells ‘specific.’ Could you look out for that in the future?”
Tell a proofreader why it is important for them to pay attention to certain aspects of your content. Are your customers picky about certain types of errors? Point those out to the proofreader so they pay extra close attention to them when reviewing your content.
Make sure you provide feedback in a timely manner. If you bring up something three months later, chances are a proofreader will not remember missing that typo.
Communicate things in a nice manner. People can accept feedback more easily if you don’t jump down their throats.
Accept that proofreaders are people, too. “To err is human,” as Alexander Pope wrote in his poem “An Essay on Criticism.” Even people who are among the leaders in their craft have bad days from time to time. Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete in history, but he did not win a gold medal in each event he participated in. Of his 28 medals received, five were silver or bronze. (Slacker.)
People aren’t perfect — sometimes they’re off their game. But that doesn’t mean you need to accept poor-quality work from proofreaders who review your content. Even if they’re having a bad day, good proofreaders will do everything they can not to let things slip through the cracks.
Proofreading Improves Your Content
There is no guarantee that proofreaders will catch all typos and errors every time they read a piece of content.
However, if proofreaders follow a process and use specific tips and tricks to avoid errors, they can overcome some of the barriers to perfection and make your work as close to error-free as possible.
If you’re unhappy with a proofreader’s work, talk to them! Let them know what mistakes are being made and remind them of how important error-free copy is for your company. After all, you’re paying them for a job well done and you don’t want to waste your time re-checking their work for errors.
Proofreaders must take the time to review their work thoroughly and do the best job possible with everything they work on. However, they don’t find all the typos all the time. The next time you review something that a proofreader worked on for you, try to think of how many errors they did find in your content instead of the one or two errors that might have gone unnoticed.
“A book’s never gonna be perfect, but then the Romans believed perfection angered the gods.” – Melvyn Small
Even the best proofreaders make mistakes occasionally. But choosing reliable proofreaders to review your pieces can help you deliver high-quality content to your customers.