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Who wrote this rubbish?

Why our brains trick us not to see mistakes and what we can do about it.

Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

One of the most bizarre experiences of a communicator is stumbling across something you apparently wrote but do not recall. Sometimes, it’s a pleasant experience. Other times, it’s somewhere along the spectrum of humbling-to-embarrassing. Scanning the text, one struggles with the dissonance of two discomforting thoughts: “Who wrote this rubbish? And why is my name at the bottom of it?”

While finding a long-lost text is dramatic, the same effect can happen with a much shorter separation. There’s a significant gap between the words in your head and those on the page. After all, whether for speech, script, announcement or opinion, the process of writing is iterative. It takes time and much forgiveness. As Hemingway put it, with his usual pithy punch, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Yet the weakness in your text isn’t just down to iteration or ability. It’s also a matter of how our brains work. Humans are above all meaning-makers. With perhaps the honourable exception of our colleagues in Legal & Compliance, we do not read and write literally, letter-by-letter or word-by-word. Instead, we see whole sections and our brains do the rest.

This is why we can still easily read a whole paragraph, like the one above, despite it being filled with misspelled words (a phenomenon known as typoglycemia) and how we can speed-read an article by taking in whole clusters of sentences or paragraphs (chunking). Working so quickly can be a great asset when reading. Yet it’s a major pitfall when writing, since our brains adjust errors unconsciously and leave them uncorrected on the page.

I have come to rely on a few simple go-to rules to help me overcome this pitfall:

  1. Leave a draft to settle for at least 24 hrs: your inner eye will be sharper for the break and be able to spot things previously unseen

  2. Get an independent review: never be precious about your work. Hand it over to a third party and invite their candid critique.

  3. Read aloud before sending up for approval: while the brain happily skips over gaps and typos, the tongue trips over them.

  4. Beta test on distribution: if you are sending to multiple thousands of people, break it up into smaller groups to allow a bonus breathing space for feedback. This can especially help resolve any gremlins that worked into the text post-approval.

So the next time your boss points out a typo in your work, you can thank them and amend with no shame. You merely have to point out, “That wasn’t me. That was just my brain!”.

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