How would you like to make fewer spelling and grammar mistakes and avoid being called out by the grammar police?
Have you ever written that you consider to be a reasonably good blog post or article only to get your first piece of feedback by a well meaning person reminding you politely that actually you made several mistakes. Trust me I’ve been there. It is especially common when you write on a controversial topic or the more popular you are.
If people want to criticize your argument (and can’t) or what to try to bring you down, spelling and grammar are easy points. I’m not saying they aren’t important, but dismissing someone entirely because of a missed keystroke or using “there” when it clearly should be “their” is not fair. If someone’s argument is good or bad, it should be judged on its merits alone, not on their style guide. Of course, if it is impossible or difficult to understand the point being made, that is a different matter altogether.
Luckily, there are a few tricks I’ve learned over time to help boost my self proofreading skills. These aren’t guaranteed to work (mistakes can still slip through) and for long form writing like a book I’d definitely recommend hiring an editor to edit for both accuracy (spelling and grammar), but also fluency (is this sentences clear, does the structure work well together). However, for individual blog post or notices in the church bulletin, these are suitable strategies.
Why I Know a Thing or Two About Making Mistakes in Writing
In case you’re wondering, I am dyslexic. That means I am part of 10% of the population whose brains are wired differently. The side effects of this include poorer spelling and grammar, but also a propensity towards out of the box thinking. This means I have plenty of experience of writing unconventional ideas which include grammar or spelling mistakes. Sometimes I’ve had well meaning feedback along the lines of “Hey, interesting post. I don’t agree with x, y z because a, b c. O,h and you made some spelling mistakes with [insert mistake]. Thanks for the good read.” [ChurchMag readers are generally like this]. However, occasionally I have had the type of comment I’m sure you are all familiar with.
“It’s ‘their’ you idiot. Why on earth would I listen to someone who can’t even spell [insert word]?” I encourage you to make suggested edits when you notice mistake, but do it in a friendly way. Remember there are people behind the keyboards.
Why We Miss Obvious Mistakes in Our Own Writing, But Notice Them in Others
Have you ever noticed that it can be so easy to notice all those grammar slips, misspelled words and punctuation errors, and yet they so easily slip past you when you write and proofread? Well, there is a very good reason for that.
When you read a text you don’t know and aren’t familiar with, you have to pay close attention to make sure that you don’t misread any information. Even so, you still don’t actually read each word individually. You often see chunks of words and read them as a single block of information rather than separate words. Something like “Have you ever…” would be an example of chunk where you can easily miss a misspelled word in part of it as you don’t take in each word or letter, but the chunk.
When you read your own work, this chunk reading is magnified. Now you know what you want to say and what you think you have written. This makes it much harder to see the mistakes in the text. As you read, your brain doesn’t take in all the information so that you can read quicker, and in fact, implants what it believe should be there.
Some Tricks to Help You Improve Your Proofreading
The following tricks are all different ways to help you overcome that bias and help your brain to see the actual words and letters on the page:
1. Pick a style guide and stick to it!
My first tip is to know your style guide. Look, there are some people out there who are going to disagree with whatever grammar style you follow. Do you use the Oxford/serial comma? Well, half the grammar police love you and half of them hate you. What about using Title case for your headlines? Again another decisive issue. The worst thing you can do is not have a guide to fall back on. If you stick to a style guide, you can show the reason for your choices. Even if someone disagrees with that style guide, you can back up your approach with a reason. Plus, it keeps things consistent across your publication—online or off.
1. View the text in a different application/web view
One of the easiest ways to start seeing what you wrote and not what you think you wrote is to view your text in a different format. If you have written it on a word processor, then view it on the webpage where it will appear. If you use WordPress or a similar blogging platform, preview your post online. This will cause the text to change position and have different visual clues. It will keep your brain off guard and encourage it to see what is actually there.
2. Print out your text
Likewise, printing out your text will make it appear differently with different visual clues. This is even more effective than reading your text on a screen again.
3. Read your text aloud
When you read a text aloud you read more slowly, as you can’t rush ahead. This means you will reread the same words multiple times (watch someone read, you’ll notice their eyes move forwards then backwards. We actually read chunks of words multiple times and will skip beyond a word then move back). Reading aloud encourages you to see the actual words on the page.
4. Use software to read out your text
Even if you’ve read your text aloud (repeatedly), your brain may still tell you something is different than it actually is. However, a computer dictation will not make that mistake. It will read the actual words on the page as it can’t read what you think…yet. 😉
This won’t help you with homophones (words which are spelled differently but sound the same), but it will help you with many other issues such as finger slips.
5. Keep a list of common spelling/grammar mistakes
Not all words and grammar rules are equal. Some mistakes are more common than others. Yes you know the ones I’m talking about. There, their, they’re. Affect, effect, and so on.
Keep a list of these common mistakes with you and look for them.
6. Start writing down YOUR common spelling/grammar mistakes
Similarly, there are probably some spelling and grammar mistakes which you make more often than other people. Start noticing these mistakes and keeping an eye out for them. It’s a great way to grow as a writer to not just get defensive when someone points out a mistake but to thank them and make sure you make the change. [This doesn’t apply to trolls who tell you to give up on what you’re doing but even then you can still learn from the mistake they inform you about.]
7. Use the find function to search for those possible mistakes
Now you’ve got your list of common mistakes, you can use the find function to (guess what) find them! This is a great way to check on homophones as you can quickly go to where they are in the text and make sure you used the correct ones.
8. Don’t proofread straight away
When you proofread straight after writing you can more easily remember what you wrote. By waiting for a while you won’t remember the text as well, this will help prevent your brain from inserting what words it believes are there and let you read what is actually there.
9. Use an app which highlights different parts of speech
Apps like iA Writer Pro and similar will highlight different parts of speech (such as nouns, adjectives, verbs etc). This helps you to view a text differently, focusing on only selected words, but it also lets you see if you have repeated the same adjectives again and again or if you have over used adjectives or adverbs.
10. Read your text backwards
The best way to stop your brain from inserting the correct word or skipping over words is to read a text backwards. When you do this, you read each word at a time focusing on each one individually. You can’t read the “chunk” or skip over words, but you have to focus on each one.
The problem with this method is you can’t check how the sentences flow together and whether they make a coherent argument. It’s great for spelling mistakes but not great for general writing style.
11. Check the language on your spellchecker
You wouldn’t believe the number of issues I’ve had from trying to type in British English only to find that I was left on American English and vice versa (even worse is when you type on a mobile device and have a foreign language activated. Sometimes you end up with VERY strange sentences). Make sure you are using the right language to spell check.
12. If you’re not sure, highlight it and come back
If you don’t know whether this word is okay or if the flow of the writing works, then highlight the part you aren’t sure about and move on.
13. Check your correction
Once you’ve made a correction, make sure you check that correction. Sometimes I’ve replaced a sentence with another one only to find that I’ve repeated myself or the correction I made was actually the incorrect one and the original was correct. Don’t assume it is correct because you changed it. Make sure it is the right one.
The Best Tip
Get someone else to read it. Even with all those aspects above, another person’s eyes will be invaluable to you and will read a text in a different way.
Of course, the reason most people don’t do most/any of these is because it takes time, but next time when you are preparing to hit publish, just think for a second about the last time you got that snarky remark. Maybe it’s worth just giving it one more look.