Why Is It Hard To Proofread Your Own Writing?

You may need someone else to proof your writing because of the way your brain works.

As you’re writing, autocorrect changes, typos, and misplaced words can sneak into your narrative. We have all experienced the embarrassment of sending a report or email — and later finding out that it contained a typo or grammatical error.

These little errors can have a big effect on your readers’ perceptions of your writing, your ideas, and even you as an author. Studies show that grammatical errors decrease the persuasiveness, perceived quality, and effectiveness of your writing.

Proofreading your own writing is notoriously difficult. Despite our best efforts, errors often linger. But why? Why is it hard to proofread your own writing? It’s because of the neat trick your brain has for handling complex processes such as writing. This can be a huge benefit for us as we navigate a challenging world, but it comes with a downside. 

Your brain is great at generalizing complex tasks

Take a moment to think about all the steps it takes to write something. Your brain is orchestrating many things at once. It’s conceptualizing ideas and turning them into sentences. It’s breaking sentences into phrases, phrases into words, words into phonemes, phonemes into letters, then transposing the letters into keys on your keyboard. Simultaneously, your brain is orchestrating movements — movement of your eyes on the screen, following your cursor as you type, then from the screen to the keyboard (Where is that “o” key, again?). Meanwhile, it’s sequencing the instructions to press each key in the correct order (move the third finger on the right hand from the “p” key to the “l” key, then the fourth finger on the left presses “e,” and so on).

Fortunately, we’re rarely aware of the many steps it takes to turn a thought into an email or text message. It just kind of happens, as if by magic. 

That magic is called a “mental map.” We use mental maps all the time to generalize complex tasks — when writing emails, as we shower, even while we drive to work. 

They’re also the reason why it’s so hard to proofread your own writing. 

Mental maps are powerful but can also cause problems

Many of us have had the experience of getting lost in thought on the way to work. Suddenly, something feels off, and you realize you’ve driven yourself toward the grocery store instead of the office. Your brain was essentially on autopilot while you were thinking, taking the steps necessary to get you where it thought you needed to go. 

The same thing can happen while you’re writing. While you’re thinking about what your message is, your brain and fingers are hard at work trying to get you where they think you need to go. As a result, you might miss making tiny typos. You might also miss typing an entire sentence or paragraph. 

When you reread your writing, your attention is divided between your mental model of the work and the actual words on the screen. Your brain knows what it meant to say, and this powerful mental model often wins the competition for your attention. The result is that you might miss even simple issues, such as a repeated word (for example, “the the”).

How to make your writing error free

According to researchers, the most effective way to proof your writing is to read it aloud to yourself or pass it along to someone else. 

Reading your work aloud adds a “desirable difficulty” to the task. It’s effective because it slows the cognitive process, giving you the benefit of extra time and attention. It also improves your comprehension and sensory processing. Notably, using funny fonts, reading backwards, or other weird proofreading “hacks” aren’t proven to be as effective as reading aloud.

Still, reading aloud isn’t as effective as having someone else read your writing. Because they are reading your work with a fresh set of eyes (or perhaps more accurately, a fresh mental map), they’ll see things you simply can’t. 

For most things, reading aloud to yourself is a good enough answer. But when that email or report absolutely, positively has to be right, rely on a trusted reader to evaluate your work. 

That will make sure your great ideas — not your typos — shine.

A hand with black nail polish writes on a white notebook with a coffee mug that says “be happy” next to it.

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