Working around your brain’s attempts at efficiency to improve your writing
Between her spelling tests, short fiction and book reports, my second grader is discovering how tricky proof-reading your own writing can be. Even though she honestly doesn’t know how to spell or decline every word correctly, she’s at a point where her brain is prioritizing what she wants to say over what’s actually been written. It’s probably a case where our brains are trying to help focus on what is really interesting at any given moment, but since noticing mistakes can be very helpful, it’s good to know when it’s happening and how to work around it.
Many errors are hard to spot not because they’re unrecognizable to the reader, but just because our brains are great at “fixing” reality for us. Blind spots in our vision can be “patched” with fabricated information. Words can be recognized as concepts, instead of carefully read. When it comes to something you’ve written, the framework of your ideas is probably important enough to hold your attention, and so minor holes or errors in your writing can be glossed over, especially after you’ve convinced yourself that you’ve written everything you need to.
Making the most of mistakes
Ignoring mistakes can become a problem, and not just for readers who might be confused by disjointed, incomplete or just misspelled prose. At a certain point, ignoring mistakes stunts the growth of your skills. A study Hans Schroder at Michigan State University had kids play a simple video game while monitoring how much they paid attention to their errors with electrode-lined caps. Kids who’s brains barely registered mistakes were more likely to continue making similar errors than kids who seemed to slow down to consider each error. These differences in attention were less than a second each, but researchers believe that kids who frame their mistakes as tools to enable their development, thinking referred to as a “growth” mindset, were quite successful at doing exactly that.
Writing is not reading
So how do you make the most of your typos, run-on sentences and tense disagreements? Even if rereading your document yields no corrections right after you right it, don’t worry— part of your brain probably caught something that could be better, and you just need to find ways to stop thinking about your ideas and instead focus on what’s actually on the page (or screen.) Some of the easiest ways to do that are to stop thinking like a writer, and shift the context of your reading to make your own words just a bit less familiar. That way, your brain will be more likely to investigate what’s there instead of what it thinks should be there.
A quick option is to change your font or coloration when you read, so that your work doesn’t look like the same document. Print it out, and edit with a pen in hand. Read your words out loud to really shift your mental context. Even better, have a friend read it out loud. Or, if you have the luxury of time, come back at a different time and do your editing after your brain isn’t carrying the same set of assumptions around.
Some of this may be overkill for a soon-to-be third grader, but even a book report isn’t likely to be perfect on the first pass.
Source: What’s Up With That: Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos by Nick Stockton, Wired