Have you ever noticed how hard it is to proofread your own work? Those typos and other cringeworthy mistakes seem to become invisible to their authors (although some writers may intentionally not care) while everyone else can see them just fine.
Ask the Trump administration. POTUS and staff have been dogged by written bloopers of late.
Example: President Trump's official inauguration portrait that the Library of Congress shop put on sale with the line, "No dream is too big, no challenge is to great." It cost $16.95 (and may well become a high-priced collectible).
No joke: Purchasable copy of Trump's Inauguration Print, direct from the Library of Congress site. A 5th grader would've spotted this typo. pic.twitter.com/zomWsMojYV
— Jules Winnfield (@paulm4749) February 12, 2017
Earlier in the day, the U.S. Department of Education sent out a tweet that spelled the name of W.E.B. DuBois, the civil rights leader and NAACP cofounder, as DeBois. Then the department made an ill-fated attempt at correcting the mistake, offering its "deepest apologizes." Oops. That should have been "apologies" (and was, later).
Education must not simply teach work - it must teach life. – W.E.B. DeBois pic.twitter.com/Re4cWkPSFA
— US Dept of Education (@usedgov) February 12, 2017
And there are all those flubs by the Tweeter-in-Chief himself. On Twitter, a rapid-fire medium of flying thumbs, Trump has said he was "honered" instead of honored, and complained about an "unpresidented act" that was actually unprecedented.
"@realDonaldTrump: I am honered to serve you, the great American People, as your 45th President of the United States!
— Trump For President (@TrumpD2016) January 21, 2017
Of course, Library of Congress prints presumably go through a rigorous copy-editing process while Twitter posts are quickies. Yet most executives would want their posts to be checked by underlings so that they can speak with authority. Trump may just want to be Trump, and many of his supporters specifically don’t want that kind of corrective authority standing between them and their president.
In any case, the difficulty in catching our own mistakes may be a trait that we all share. It's the way our brains work.
"When you're writing, you're trying to convey meaning. It's a very high-level task," Tom Stafford, a psychology professor with the University of Sheffield in England, told Wired magazine in 2014.
Since your brain already knows what you were trying to say, it may miss the errors that are on the screen or page because they aren't what it expects to be there. A sort of auto-correct in your head makes the printed version seem OK.
"We don' t catch every detail, we're not like computers or NSA databases," Stafford said in the article. "Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning."
People who deal with writing for a living are well aware of these phenomena.
William FitzGerald, an associate professor of English and director of the writing program at Rutgers-Camden, said people such as copy editors are trained to see errors that even good writers miss in their own work.
"I often ask my college students to read their writing aloud, and I have seen them correct errors without noticing they have done so, but then not return to the text to make the correction," FitzGerald said.
"It's also true that many writers simply fail to read their own writing or, as seems to be the case with the new administration, they don't ask others to edit or proofread something before sending it out," added FitzGerald. "But there's no shortcut to excellence in production standards. And for many, there's no excuse for failure. I'm struck by how unforgiving we are, in general, in such matters as typos."
Carl Hausman, a Rowan University journalism professor and author of several books on writing, admits that typos have also been his nemesis.
Some techniques that have worked for him:
- When reading over your work, focus on the words, not the broader ideas or themes that they convey.
- Double- and triple-check for mistakes.
- Have someone else read it.
- Come back to it again when you are rested.