The Scientific Reason Making Typos Doesn't Mean You're Careless


The news: Why is it so much easier to spot mistakes in other people's writing than in your own? It's not pure luck or happenstance. It's science.

There are two reasons for the discrepancy: First, proofreading is a lot easier than writing. Our brains are basically processing machines, so catching a misspelled "that" is far simpler than coming up with and connecting complex thoughts.

When we think creatively — say, by writing a work of fiction — we use different parts of the brain than when we are simply reading, copying or thinking more traditionally, according to recent work by radiologist Martin Lotze of the University of Greifswald in Germany. As we're forming and trying to communicate complex ideas, less important parts of the writing process (ahem, spelling) fall by the wayside. "When you're writing, you're trying to convey meaning," University of Sheffield psychologist Tom Stafford told Wired. "It's a very high-level task."

Second, when we look over our own work, we see what we want to see. As Wired's Nick Stockton explains, when we look over what we've written, we approach the piece with a version of what we'd like to see already in our minds. So even if a critical chunk of information is missing — say, the part that explains the bulk of an argument you're making in an essay — we don't notice because the explanation is still alive in our minds.

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Seeing a piece with "fresh eyes" is important: When you revisit your work after a short break, your brain will be better equipped to notice your errors. People who write frequently have hundreds of tricks for getting a fresh look, many of which (like printing out your piece in a different color or font) can be especially handy when you don't have time for a break. Famous writers have used some even stranger tricks to get a new perspective — Virginia Woolf allegedly wrote on an angled, three-and-half-foot tall desk so she could read her work up-close and at a distance.

The takeaway: Don't sweat the small stuff. Typos are normal, especially in creative writing. Remember to take breaks and, if you're short on time, try a few of the tricks above to make your errors pop out.