Proofread like a pro: how to catch those pesky mistakes your spell checker misses

Why is it that you only see those pesky, embarrassing typos in important pieces of writing AFTER they’ve gone to press? Like this one from one of my own archives:

…he never fully recovered from the pubic humiliation of having his…

I’ve never fully recovered from that particular “pubic humiliation” either. When you work with words for a living, you really can’t afford to let mistakes like that slip by. And even if writing isn’t your profession, typos still make you look careless at best, ignorant at worst. Modern spell checkers are useful tools, of course, but they can only catch mistakes that are within their programming. My spell checker didn’t save me from the unfortunate “pubic incident” because spell checkers highlight only words that they can’t find in their dictionaries. Pubic is a perfectly good word, just incorrectly wielded in this context. But the real question is: Why didn’t I notice it myself?

Your brain knows what you meant to say

We are blind to our own typing mistakes

You know what you mean to write, so your brain, trying to make things easier for you, fills in the correct information and doesn’t even register the spelling mistake.

I didn’t catch the typo myself because my brain, expecting to find the word public, filled in the missing L. Our brains are masters at getting us to see what our experience and expectations tell us we should see. Thus the pubic/public problem wasn’t the only typo that managed to slip by in that particular piece of writing: I tend to flip letters when I type, and there were several instances where I’d typed, for example, form instead of from. My brain, doing what brains like to do, had quite merrily transposed the letters back into their correct positions for me as I proofread because it knew what I had meant to type. You’ve probably already thought of a few things your own fingers tend to fumble over when typing.

Everyone has been guilty of letting a typo slip through at some point, so your ego can probably recover from what are obviously simple mechanical errors. But what if you happened to let one of the pet peeves of of a pedantic eighth-grade English teachers slip unnoticed into your writing? I’m talking about unspeakable horrors such as writing loose when you mean lose? Or it’s when you mean its? Of course you know the difference between loose and lose as well as it’s and its, but when your deadline is imminent and you’re writing in a last-dash, coffee-fueled frenzy, it’s easy to read right past this kind of slip-up. And there are plenty of uncharitable people in the world who will not see it as a mere slip-up, but rather as a grave indication that you have the intelligence of a turnip. (Note: I am not one of those people!)

How to proofread and catch all the mistakes

So you can’t trust your spell checker or even your own brain when it comes to proofreading your own texts. It sounds like a hopeless case, doesn’t it? Luckily, it’s not. Here are two proofreading methods that can help:

1) Enlist the help of a second reader to help you proofread. It works like this. One of you slowly and carefully reads aloud from a hard copy while the silently reads either the online version or another hard copy. Because the text is new to your helper, her brain is not as likely as yours to fix mistakes as she reads along. Between the two of you, you’ll catch far more errors than you would on your own. You then correct them in the online copy while your helper watches to make sure that you don’t inadvertently add another error. (Trust me, it happens.) This method works GREAT, but is dependent on finding a willing helper. If you don’t have anyone available, read on for the next method.

2) Use text-to-speech software in place of a second reader. It works like thisL you read silently on the hard copy (you’ll catch more errors on a hard copy than you will online) while the text-to-speech software reads the text aloud to you. You will be surprised at how many errors you catch this way, errors that you probably never would have noticed when reading silently to yourself. Mark the changes on the hard copy, and then VERY CAREFULLY enter them into the online copy.

Of course, no method is guaranteed to catch everything. But if you use either text-to-speech software or a second reader, you will have done just about everything you can to minimize the risk of pub(l)ic humiliation because of careless typing mistakes. Good luck!

Links:
Microsoft reader
http://www.microsoft.com/reader/downloads/pc.asp
Microsoft text-to-speech engine (choose your language)
http://www.microsoft.com/reader/developers/downloads/tts.asp

How To Configure and Use Text-to-Speech in Windows XP
(Microsoft Knowledge Base)
http://support.microsoft.com/kb/306902/

How to automate Excel Text to Speech in another Office program
http://support.microsoft.com/kb/287120/

How to configure Text to Speech for Microsoft Word
http://www.gmayor.com/word_text_to_speech.htm (this is the method I use myself)

Free text-to-speech software

http://www.naturalreaders.com/index.htm
http://www.readplease.com/english/downloads/
http://www.wordtalk.org.uk/ (looks good – integrates with MS Word)

For-purchase text-to-speech software
http://www.tanseon.com/products/voicemx.htm (free trial version)
http://www.alivemedia.net/textspeech.htm (free trial version)
http://www.fog-ware.com/products/ispeak.htm (no demo, but looks good)