Wired recently published an interesting article about the bane of any writer’s existence: typos. Why do we make them in the first place, and once we do, why it is so darned difficult to see them so we can fix them?
The article contends that typos occur because the brain is occupied with the complex task of communicating concepts via the written word and operates on autopilot in performing the lower-level tasks of creating words and sentences. And then, during the proofreading run after you’ve made the little mistake, your brain knows what you intended to convey and just assumes that it is there in all its glory. That makes it hard to see the extra s or the extraneous word that you failed to delete. Technology, too, plays a role. When you are creating a document on a computer you are keyboarding, editing, cutting and pasting, and moving blocks of text here and there, and inevitably errors will occur.
And, just as people develop “chicken fatigue” after eating too much poultry, so the brain can develop “writing fatigue.” Often you’ve read and re-read your piece so many times that your bored brain just skims the surface of the words, leaving you defenseless against the little, irritating errors. That’s the way my brain works, so my typo-termination technique is to try to let time pass (overnight if possible) before making my proofreading run. I want to see the work with fresher eyes and, I hope, catch things I didn’t catch before.
Given the prevalence of typos, and the human elements that inevitably produce them, you’d think that people would be more forgiving when they see them. But we aren’t, of course. Instead, we equate typos with carelessness and lack of attention to detail and allow their presence to undercut the high-level concepts that, according to the Wired piece, caused the writer’s brain to make the mistakes in the first place. Perverse, isn’t it? It’s why writers hate typos so much — and why anyone applying for a job would do well to enlist the services of a careful resume proofreader.