They say you learn something new every day.

Proof Reading (26/02/2012)

I wrote something this week for a magazine.

It’s only a couple of thousand words. I’ve been meaning to write it for something like eight months now, and it was only because I didn’t have the internet that I got round to doing it.

I’m quite happy with it, partly because I did a lot of proofreading. I took out so many adverbs, adjectives and qualifiers. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s so true. I suspect in the first draft you put a lot in just qualifiers and adjectives in to give you more time to think. They’re sort of literary “ums”. Almost a type of phatic phrase.

Even then though, I missed a number of typos that L and M picked up when they read it.

Proof reading is really hard, because you read what you meant not what you’ve actually written. It’s a really tricky psychological problem. Obviously, misspellings are easy, because Word puts a helpful little red line underneath them. What’s tricky is when you write the wrong word by mistake – a typo that results in a different word. Word tries to put a green or blue underline for these, and Word 2010 is certainly a lot better than 2003, but it still gets a number of false positives, and also misses a lot.

I’ve been thinking about how to solve this problem – how to get better at spotting these. I think all you can do is:

  1. Get someone else to read it, or ideally, lots of other people.
  2. Be aware of what words you’re likely to mistype. It’s my experience that there are certain words I tend to mistype (probably because of some sort of finger memory, or repeated error) and be especially vigilant around those.

For example: I think I must have slightly dyslexia around “p” and “b”. I remember I’ve always got these slightly confused since I was small – but only in the middle of words. Maybe it’s their shape or their sound. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. I can train myself a bit harder to get them right, but also I need to make sure I read very carefully when I get to a word like “crumbled”, that I do mean “crumbled” and not “crumpled”. In Thinking Fast and Slow Language I need to engage my second level of thinking which is slower and more thorough – looking at what is actually there, rather than what I think is there.

The other things I tend to mistype are:

  • “Now” and “not”  – this one is quite bad, since it turns the sentence completely round, but it’s easy for both me and proofreaders to miss.
  • “to” and “and” – I know it’s slang, but I still sometimes write “sit down and listen” instead of “sit down to listen”. The former is valid, but I mean the latter. In some cases, the former isn’t valid.
  • Tenses. I don’t mean I don’t get tenses (I do. I did. I will – see, easy), what I mean is I write “she’d” instead of “she’s”. Very easy one that one.
  • Repeated words. This one is terrifying, and I think I might write a bit of software to help me with this one. My first sentence was:

I get up to get a cup of tea. When I get back David Jason is sitting in my seat.

Did you spot it? It might be easier since I’ve isolated it and sit it aside, but I read that so many times, L read it, M read it, and in fact, I never noticed it until R pointed it out:

I get up to get a cup of tea. When I get back David Jason is sitting in my seat.

Three “get”s in two sentences. The fix is easy enough:

I get up to buy a cup of tea. When I come back, David Jason is sitting in my seat.

It doesn’t even change the rhythm or the scansion of the line – but you have to notice it to make the change. And three well educated, English-graduates missed it! And it’s in the first sentence.

Proof reading, as I say, is tough.


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