A Proof-Reading Tale

I read with interest tonight a brief story caption under the main image on the Herald Sun homepage:

One up: Daniel Giansiracusa celebrates a first-term goal as the Bulldogs notch their first win of the AFL season with a 32-point win over Richmond at the MCG tonight.

There’s a link there to the AFL Footy home page, which has a brief lead article:

Dogs seal second win
THE Western Bulldogs returned to the winning list tonight with a 32-point victory over Richmond at the MCG.

Then, in the article itself, in the 3rd paragraph:

But five quick goals sealed the Bulldogs’ third win of the season, 20.12 (132) to 14.16 (100) and condemned Richmond to a fourth straight defeat.

So, the initial reference is to “first win” the next reference is to a “second win” and then in the article itself, it says “third win“… you’d be confused if you read all three bits of text!

If you’re wondering, the Bulldogs won in Round 1 against the Cats, lost to Adelaide in Round 2 and St Kilda in Round 3, and then have won their Round 4 game against the Tigers. So it was actually the second win of the 2007 season for the Western Bulldogs. The articles have probably now been corrected to fix the errors.

So let’s get to the business “point” to this article.

It’s about proof-reading.

Here’s two things I’ve learned about proof-reading over the years, and three good proof-reading tips…

2 things I’ve learned about proofing…

  1. Work created in a hurry can easily lead to errors. When the deadline is short (like the footy article posted within an hour or so from the end of the game), some of the good proof-reading steps aren’t used. It’s easy for something to slip through inadvertently (happened to me this week for creating a flyer: I had put the date in as Friday, 21st April 2007 — I’ll tell you about that in a minute!).
  2. It can be difficult for the person who wrote the content to spot any obvious errors, especially within minutes or hours of creating it — because what they read silently to themselves in their minds is not always what they’ve written!

Has that happened to you? It certainly happens to me — sometimes the most obvious or simple typo error creeps through! It relates to a phenomenon that probably has a number of descriptions, but one that has been psychologically described as a “mental scotoma”: a figurative mental “blind spot” — a lack of awareness about the actual words you’re reading.

Here’s an example: you silently proof read “the cat sat on the mat” when in fact you might have actually written “the cat sat of the mat”. Your mental blind spot means you can easily miss a simple error, as you’re really proof-reading your thoughts, not the actual words written down or typed on the screen!

So here’s 3 good quick proof-reading tips:

  1. Have someone else proof-read your work. Because they didn’t write it, chances are they will spot any errors quickly. They’re not likely to suffer the same mental scotoma as you, the author! The less urgency there is for a deadline, the more relaxed the reader will be… so the more chance they will spot errors, rather than skim in a hurry to meet your deadline.Like the footy example above, I can quickly spot errors in other people’s work. I KNOW I make errors too — but they’re harder for me to spot sometimes!
  2. Make sure you leave the work aside for at least 24 hours if you’re proof-reading it yourself. Chances are, you’ll see what’s written, not what you thought you wrote, because you’ve forgotten in your mind exactly what the content was!

    Haven’t got 24 hours or someone else to assist? Here’s one great tip in that case: read your work BACKWARDS, from end to start. That way, you’re much more likely to be looking at the actual words, not what you think you’ve written, because the wording doesn’t flow in a normal sentence, so you can see individual words more clearly.

    However, this might help pick up spelling errors, but your mind still might miss on having a correctly spelled word, but the wrong one. So ideally, you really want to either have enough time pass before you proof-read (and your work is again “fresh” in your mind) — or have someone else proof-read for you.

  3. If it’s really important, have someone else read aloud to you the work. If you read it to them, you might skip over errors for the reasons described. But if they read it to you, you’re forcing them to verbalise the actual written words, and you can both listen for errors.

Back to the flyer example I mentioned.

I’d written the date incorrectly as “Friday, 21st April 2007” — when it should have been the 20th. And I wrote the flyer on the 18th, so only 2 days before the actual date! (And in only 1 of 2 months in 2007 with a “Friday the 13th” which should make Friday 20th more mentally obvious!).

I didn’t see the error straight away (in a hurry, VERY short deadline). My client (both her and a staff member) also missed on this error — again, proofing in a hurry to give us approval to print the flyer. It wasn’t until the next morning, when another person read the flyer (not in a hurry), and they spotted the date error almost instantly, because a family member’s birthday was on Saturday 21st April — so they knew instantly the date was wrong and pointed it out.

Thankfully, we caught the error in time and the flyer was given to our client to send out to her database with the correct date.

Usually, I check dates and matching weekdays during artwork creation. I have a little business card size calendar next to my monitor. However, in a hurry, racing to a deadline, it was easy to overlook the typo. Actually, our client said she wasn’t too worried (the flyer made it clear in other places that the sale started on the Friday, not the Saturday) — and she would have sent out the incorrect version anyway (better to get the flyer out to clients for an urgent retail sale than to miss out altogether) — however, to help protect her business reputation (and to avoid confusion) we’d rather get it right and not have the error!

Having said that — I read a very interesting section this week in Kevin Hogan’s book The Science of Influence: How to Get Anyone to Say “Yes” in 8 Minutes or Less!. He talks about “hypnotic confusion” as a persuasion technique (see page 123) — and the work of Milton Erickson MD — and cites an example of deliberate mental disruption designed to persuade subjects conform to a suggestion. Maybe “Friday 21st” could have been used as a simple disruption to get a specific result! No time to test that though!