Your Brain Has Priorities

typo, misprint

(photo: David Sim, CC & cropped)

My second novel. 78,000 words. Respectable length, not one that would panic an agent or publisher. (Unless you’re Stephen King or Dona Tartt, forget the 700-page doorstops. ) I’ve read all the advice to new writers: get an editor (I’ve been editing people’s stuff for . . . a long time—skip that step), have it proofread (pfout! I can spot a typo like Annie Oakley nailing the ace of spades). Hit the send button, set the big envelopes on the postage scale, and trundle them out to the mailbox. Done!

Except. Except that every time I look at my perfect manuscript, I find, horrors!, a typo. A word missing. An editing faux pas. Have I blown it? Big time? Nick Stockton’s recent Wired article on why we miss our own mistakes sheds some light on the problem. “Typos suck,” he says. “They are saboteurs, undermining your intent, causing your resume [or the novel you’ve spent two years writing] to land in the ‘pass’ pile.” Spotting other people’s errors, no problem. Like the LinkedIn blurb I saw today for a job-seeker who wrote, “I also have string organizational, self-management and interpersonal skills.”

Our own typos elude us, Stockton says, not “because we’re stupid or careless,” quite the opposite. He quotes psychologist Tom Stafford from the University of Sheffield who says it’s because writing “is a very high level task,” and our brains focus on creating meaning and conveying complex ideas, not dealing with more mundane things. Homonyms and spelling being two. (I’ve noticed my alarming recent tendency to type even the most absurd homonym when I mean something entirely different—the kind of error that makes me howl when I read it in print.) When we read our own stuff, we skip over these mistakes because we know what we mint.

Touch typing was one of the most useful high school courses I took—that and driver’s ed—and I have always made certain errors, typing “d” when I mean “k,” and vice-versa. Or, when I type “Bethesda,” it takes real effort to stop myself from adding a “y” at the end. What I’ve noticed is that those mechanical errors are now so embedded that I make them even when I’m writing longhand. I go through two or three envelopes to get a birthday card out to any of my Bethesday friends.

And let’s not even start talking about numbers. Hopeless. I almost never enter a whole phone number without transposing something. I am a person for whom speed-dial is a godsend. The only thing that prevents matters from being much worse is that, as Stockton reports, “proofreading requires you to trick your brain into pretending that it’s reading the thing for the first time.” That’s where my vanishing attention span is a big plus.