Why Is It So Hard to Catch Our Own Typos?

Photo of a red pen on top of a proofreader's marked-up document.
You may not be hard-wired to catch your own errors.

Have you ever finished writing something, edited and proofread it multiple times, and down the road you found out you still missed a few mistakes?

If so, you’re not alone.

It’s easy to do. In fact, it’s unrealistic to think you’d always catch every one of your own mistakes.

Even with modern technology and spell check, there will probably be a few typos and grammatical errors left on the final draft.

Here are a few of the reasons why, as well as what you can do about it.

A Lack of Knowledge

Sometimes it’s because you’re making a mistake without knowing that it’s a mistake.

Most people, even professors and writers, will make a few mistakes just because they don’t know any better. Even if they have a great grasp of grammar, their knowledge still isn’t perfect.

So it’s easy to miss the same mistake multiple times because you don’t know any better. And that’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Sure, you should try to learn as much about grammar as you can, but you’re still likely to miss a few things.

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You’re Too Close to the Project

When you’ve stared at the same thing for so long, the typos and mistakes tend to blend in.

At some point you’ve probably had the experience of turning in a project, getting feedback, and seeing that you failed to find a simple mistake. It didn’t matter that you proofread it two or three times; you still didn’t spot the mistake.

As writer Nick Stockton from Wired points out, “The reason we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.”

It’s similar to a concept in psychology called sensory adaptation. The American Psychological Association defines it as “a phenomenon in which receptor cells lose their power to respond after a period of unchanged stimulation; allows a more rapid reaction to new sources of information.”

In other words, your brain is typically better at noticing changes than constants.

For example, have you ever walked into a coffee shop or restaurant and thought the music was a little too loud? For the first 15–20 minutes, the volume is very noticeable. But after a while, you fail to notice it and the noise starts to blend in.

This doesn’t just happen with sound; it also happens with sight, taste, smell, temperature, and more.

Something similar is probably happening when you’re working on a project for so long and it becomes tricky to spot errors, even when you know better. You’ve been staring at the same words for so long that they just start blending in.

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What’s the Solution?

The solution is to have someone else edit your document.

That can be friends, family members, colleagues, teachers, mentors, or anyone else you trust.

Keep in mind that most people aren’t experts at proofreading or copy editing. That’s probably fine if you’re working on a school project or something similar. But if you’re writing something more important, such as a book, advertisement copy, or materials for a course, it’s usually better to work with a professional.

Most people don’t have a full grasp of the grammar rules that a copy editor knows. And many people lack the attention to detail that’s necessary to pick up mistakes.

Another benefit of working with a skilled copy editor is that it will improve your writing. Over time, you’ll probably make fewer and fewer grammar mistakes because of the feedback.

If you’re working on an important project and looking for an experienced copy editor, contact Super Copy Editors today for a quick, no-obligation quote.

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Dave Baker

View posts by Dave Baker
Hi, I’m Dave Baker, founder and copy chief of Super Copy Editors. I have more than two decades of professional proofreading and copy editing experience, including work for The Nation magazine, The New York Times, and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, where I shared two staff Pulitzer Prizes after Hurricane Katrina. Today, I have put together a hand-picked team of copy editors, and we especially love working with ad agencies, marketing departments, and education companies to make their text as polished as possible. Learn more here.

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