6 ways to catch mistakes

Have you ever heard about that phenomenom where you can swap all the ltetrs in a wrod and still be able to read it properly, as long as the first and last letters are correct?

How many versions of Benedict Cumberbatch have you seen and giggled at? (One of my favourites involved cucumbers.)

How many times have you proofread an essay (back when they were handwritten, at least), only to get pulled up by your teacher on typos anyway? (And even now that our computers do most of the spell checking for us, Microsoft Word still doesn’t know which witch is which.)

I’ll bet all of these sound familiar to you, so here are six ways to catch mistakes in your writing before they kill your reputation.

Updated to add more (10th August, 2017) courtesy of Emma from Puddle Side Musings!

1. Use the spellcheck function

I do the bulk of my revision (and writing) in Scrivener, but basically every word processor I’ve heard about has its own built-in spell checker.

Some spell checkers are completely in your face, like Microsoft Word or Page’s constantly-on squiggly lines.

Spelling errors in Pages

Others need to be activated, which allows you to focus on writing when you need to and then worry about getting the words right later.

(Guess which one I prefer.)

You can catch a lot during digital revision, but you won’t spot evrey miskate by site alone, so make sure to utilise your spell checker function before moving on.

2. Print out a hard copy of your manuscript

I’m not sure how it works, but there’s something about seeing words in print that make them more real. Your eyes register printed copy differently than digital copy.

In other words, having a printed copy can slow you down enough to recognise typos and misspellings you would otherwise fail to spot.

It’s usually recommended (especially when submitting your work to a publisher) that you print your manuscript double-spaced with wide margins so editors have room to leave notes.

You don’t have to do this if you do the bulk of your revisions in the digital copy because you won’t need as much room for edits. I usually just print mine single-spaced and double-sided to save paper.

I suggest having a proofreading cheatsheet to hand while going through your printed copy. Using proofreading symbols will save you a lot of time, effort, and handwriting — as will colour-coding your revision notes.

3. Read it out loud

This is truly the core message of this post, and something I think every writer should do at least once with their work, no matter if it’s a novel or a short story or a blog post or even a letter to Grandma. I even used to read my roleplaying posts out loud to force myself to slow down and spot mistakes. (Even then, I’d go back a day later and realise there were a few I’d missed.)

The thing is, most of us actually scan words rather than reading them. This is why typoglycaemia works the way it does: you don’t notice that the letters in the midlde of a word are wrong because your brain fills in the blanks anyawy. It’s a technique we learn early in life to make academic reading less of a chore and so we can digest more books in less time: our brain learns the patterns of words and sentences, and can (usually) predict what comes next.

That’s brilliant when we need to read something fast or get the gist of an article when we don’t have time to read the whole thing, but what about when we’re trying to spot and correct mistakes? If our brains fill in the blanks so we don’t see the erorrs, how can we know what to fix? You can be damned sure that if you don’t spot your typos, your readers will, and all that embarrassment will spell (hah!) the end of your reputation and possibly your career before it’s even begun.

Reading out loud forces your brain to slow down to the same speed as your mouth, which is much slower than your eyes. Where you could probably read 200 words a second while scanning silently, your mouth forces you to pick out each word one by one and notice them all.

Typos that your eyes happily skipped over will trip over your tongue, forcing you to pause and correct them.

4. Read it out loud to someone else

If reading out loud to yourself forces your brain to slow down and notice mistakes your eyes missed, then reading out loud to an audience is the best way to catch problems with the story itself. Scenes you thought were hilarious might drag when read aloud. Concepts you thought were genius can sound utterly stupid. Sentences that flowed beautifully in your head will chug over your tongue like a rattling old steam engine.

Beware self-consciousness! Your story may be perfect, but reading it aloud might still make you feel like it’s not just because you have an audience. Learn the difference before you rip your manuscript to shreds and feed it to the pigeons.

The beauty of reading aloud to an audience is that you don’t even need their reaction half the time to realise what you’ve done wrong: just having someone sitting there pretending to listen makes you aware of your own work in a way you weren’t before. (I can’t count all the times I’ve read a beloved scene to my dad, only to realise how clunky a sentence is or how many times I’ve repeated the word “yelled”.)

Reading out loud to someone else holds you accountable in a way that staying silent doesn’t.

Of course, there’s no sense wasting your beta’s time on typos if you haven’t even revised yet, but reading your work to an audience is a good way to gauge interest early on in the draft. I like to do it several times at different stages: I frequently read snippets of my favourite scenes to test the waters right after writing, and then I wait until I’ve revised a few times before reading them again. My dad’s not the type to sit still for a full chapter, so I have to break it up and focus on what’s bugging me the most — but that’s actually beneficial since I can’t focus for too long, anyway.

5. Wait

Temporarily abandon your project.

Yes, you heard me. Abandon your project. Stick it in a virtual closet somewhere on your hard drive (or an actual closet if you work by hand) and forget about it.

Set a date (and a reminder) and don’t touch it until the alarm goes off.

Because you’ve heard of the phrase “familiarity breed contempt”, right? Well, there’s nothing so appropriate as a writer who’s worked on their new baby day and night for weeks. Good scenes blur into the bad. Characters get on your nerves. The plot you thought was super duper ahmayzing starts to look super duper tedious.

Furthermore, if you’re familiar with what you’ve written, your brain will start to fill in all the blanks again. It won’t matter if there’s a glaring typo staring you right in the face because your brain knows what it’s supposed to say and will insist on seeing it that way instead. You’ll be so accustomed to what you were trying to write that you won’t notice what you actually wrote.

Time away from a project will fix that.

So tuck it away and forget about it for a while. I promise you’ll find all sorts of mistakes when you go back.

6. Repeat Steps 1-5

Wait until you’ve revised as much as you think you’re going to.

Wait until you’ve printed a copy and fixed all the mistakes you spotted there.

Wait until you’ve read it aloud to yourself.

Wait until you’ve read it out loud to someone else.

Wait until you’ve put it away for a while and come back to fix all the mistakes you couldn’t see before.

Then do it all again. Double check before you call your work done. I can almost guarantee that you’ll spot something you didn’t see before.

Triple check before you submit for publication.

Be as sure as you can be that you aren’t going to publish something riddled with typos and mistakes. This is especially true if you’re self-publishing or going the e-book route because no one else will do it for you.

(How many times have you read a review on Amazon that claims a title is unreadable? And how many times have you actually bought something that turned out to be illegible because of formatting or typos that should have been corrected long before it ever got that far?)

Typos and misspellings are unprofessional. They make your work look cheap and tacky. I sure as hell am not going to spend money on a book if the author can’t be bothered to find and fix their mistakes.

Other techniques

What techniques do you guys use to catch and fix mistakes before they get to the public? (I vaguely recall hearing about one writer who dances around the room while singing their manuscript, but I might have been dreaming.)

Is spelling a bugbear for you or do you not bother that much? How much do you rely on your word processor’s spell checker, and how reliable is it?

6 ways to catch mistakes in your writing
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Spot the mistakes

Did you spot all the (deliberate) typos? If so, I’ll give you a cookie!

(The cookies are a lie. Have some cake instead.)

The cake is a lie
The cake is a lie too. (Stock from Splitshire.)


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Idle Emma says:

    The dreaded typos! No matter how many times I re-read my blog posts, I always spot more mistakes and awkward phrases. For all my college essays, I had a routine going for when I finished writing them – check spell check, re-read myself, read it out loud to myself, get someone else to read it and then…wait 24 hours and read it again. Often if you’ve just finished something, your brain is still so focused on it and you remember everything you meant to stay but give it 24 hours and you get a bit of a fresh perspective of it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Emma says:

      I forgot about leaving it for a while before reading it through again. :O That’s an excellent tip.

      For fiction, I tend to leave it for a year or more (mostly because of the way I write in bursts, not by design lol) but for roleplaying and for non-fiction, 24-48 hours is usually enough. (Although, like you said, Emma, I often find more mistakes a week later!)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Idle Emma says:

        Somehow there’s always more mistakes! But at some point you have to stop looking for them and just hope that you got the worst of them 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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