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Spelling, Part Two: It Don’t Mean a Thing

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In Part One we covered the basics of using your computer's spell checker. But a spell checker catches only words it can't find in its dictionary. You still have to carefully read over your text, using your own eyes and brain to catch any errors that remain.

This is hard, though. It takes concentration — and not the same type of concentration required when reading normally. Probably the biggest reason even good spellers fail to catch errors is that the reading brain actually works against the proofreading brain. Normally, when you're reading, your brain doesn't care about individual letters or words, it cares about meaning. It wants to quickly absorb the whole phrase or sentence, to comprehend what's actually being said and move on. So it unconsciously "corrects" or ignores misspellings; it may detect them, but they never make it into the conscious mind.

How can you get around this? Here are a few strategies that can help you become an effective error-catcher.

Read slowly, word by word.

You can help prevent your brain from ignoring the errors by reading slowly enough to experience each word in isolation. By disconnecting the word from the meaning of the phrase or sentence, you're more likely to notice if it doesn't look right. Here's the classic demonstration of the brain not noticing something that's plain to see, but contrary to expectations:


Paris in the Spring

Most viewers, if they're unfamiliar with this puzzle, when asked to read it aloud will say, "Paris in the spring," not noticing the extra "the."

Read out loud.

Some proofreaders recommend reading out loud. This is one way to force yourself to read slowly and deliberately.

Take a break.

Professional copy editor Karen Sherman suggests a pause. "Put the piece aside and come back to it later. When you're writing something, you know what you're trying to say, so that's what you see when you look at it; when you come back to it after doing something else for a while, you'll have a fresh perspective on it, and it's amazing the things you'll notice. It's the next best thing to having someone else proofread your work for you."

Waste a little paper.

Sherman also suggests "printing the piece out and reading it on paper; it's amazing how many things you'll catch that way that you wouldn't notice on the screen." Just from this little change of scene you'll be approaching your text with a fresh eye.

Make the text large enough to read clearly.

You don't have to accept the default size of the text. If you're proofreading on a screen, view your text in a large font, or magnify the window or screen resolution so you can read carefully without straining your eyes. Your eyes will get less fatigued, and you'll be more accurate. The same goes for printed text: print your document in a font size that's large enough to read and proof easily.

Give these simple tips a try.  They're sure to improve your proofreading accuracy.

These techniques can't turn a poor speller into a good one, though. After all, you can't catch and correct errors if you don't recognize them in the first place. Being a poor speller is not a personality defect; some very smart people (some very smart writers, in fact) simply aren't good at spelling.  The type of visual memory that makes misspelled words "look wrong" is stronger in some people than in others.

So what can you do if you're a poor speller — or if you simply don't have the time or energy to proofread your own writing?  Tune in next week.

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