Proofreading: Nobody Is Prefcet

by Barbara Kamienski

Published at 2015-01-13

You know the feeling, don’t you? You’ve composed an exquisitely worded email, tinkered with the phrasing to get it just right, and read it through several times to make sure it’s error-free. You’ve clicked on Send, and just as you’re about to lift your finger off the mouse, you spot it: an egregious typo that is irrevocably on its way once you lift your finger—which you’ll have to do eventually, no matter how long you stare at the screen cursing your inattentiveness and wishing you’d taken the time to figure out that recall email thingy. 

What the Eye Sees

How does this happen? How do we miss typos, grammar gaffs, and mangled syntax, even when we are specifically looking for them? Film director James Cameron gave a good explanation many years ago in an interview, even though he was talking about special effects in movies, not about writing. In a nutshell, he said that the eye sees what it wants to see. Cameron used the example of the aerial shots of the Titanic in the film of the same name. 
There was, of course, no actual mammoth vessel filmed from the skies but rather a model ship floating in a huge tub of water, and the “people” walking about on deck were small, computer-controlled robots. If you were to watch the aerial scenes with this knowledge, he said, you would easily see this. But the scenes work because viewers adjust the reality of what they’re seeing to match what the filmmaker intends them to see.    

We Do the Same Thing with Words

Consider this: Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, the phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid mnaes it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. 
Need I spell it out? Adjusting what we see to what we want to see—and overlooking typos—is distressingly easy.    

How Does It Happen?

But, you say, this shouldn’t happen to professional editors, should it? Alas, it sometimes does. This is why texts go through several stages of editing. Copyediting involves being on the lookout for every imaginable type of error—misspelled or incorrectly used words and punctuation, inconsistencies of every type, dodgy syntax—and a copyeditor who has just finished  untangling a particularly tricky mistake of one type may well sail right over a sly typo in the next sentence. 
Luckily, once the text has been typeset, it goes to the proofreader, who comes to it with what we call “a fresh set of eyes” and, we hope, will find that sly typo (while also checking for bad line breaks, widows and orphans, stacks, rivers, and so on).  
Check out our proofreading services here; and read Lesley-Anne’s blog on perfection.

A Fresh Set of Eyes—And Another One

Some typos, however, are so sneaky that they elude even several sets of eyes. A few years ago, for example, a novel was published in which a character named Hugh played a major role; his name therefore appeared hundreds of times. 
The text had been trawled over by several editors of the highest caliber and should have been error-free. Luckily, before sending the files to the printer, the managing editor acted on a nagging feeling of unease and hired one last editor to do a “cold read.” 
Sure enough, that eagle-eyed person found seven instances of High instead of Hugh. How could this happen? Apparently, the novel was so gripping that nobody but the “cold reader” had been able to read slowly enough to catch the mistake.   

The Challenge

When proofreading, we are, of course, trying our very best to catch any and every mistake, working within the parameters of two imperatives: working slowly enough to spot and correct mistakes and quickly enough to meet our deadline. Stories such as the one above keep us humble and on our toes, as does the knowledge of just how many ways there are for errors to creep in and slide by unnoticed. 
You’re thinking of dashing off a paper or a book without having it edited? Really?