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 five ways to catch mistakes in your writing before they kill your reputation.
1. Use the spellcheck function
I do the bulk of my revision (and writing) in Liquid Story Binder, 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’s constantly-on squiggly lines.
Some checkers need to be activated (like LSB’s), 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 miss.
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 and symbols that make no sense to writers without a cheatsheet.
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 notes. I usually just print mine single-spaced and double-sided to save paper.
I suggest printing a copy of a proofreading cheatsheet and memorising at least the basics (such as the squiggly underline for “use a better word”), then have the cheatsheet to hand when you’re 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 in a heartbeat 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. Repeat Steps 1-4
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.
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.
(How many times have you read a review on Amazon that claims a title is unreadable? (I’ve seen plenty.) 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.
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?
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.)