Brain Science, Mark Twain and Proofreading: Why a Freelancer Will Help

Mark Twain

Photo Credit: A.F. Bradley

Why do we keep missing things when we proofread our own work? And what can we do about that?

The answers lie in brain science. The brain operates at two levels: a conscious, more careful mode, and an unconscious, instinctive level. That unconscious level processes outside conscious awareness. To prevent overload when operating in that mode, the brain shows us what we expect to see. So if there’s an extra identical word, the brain will not “see” one of them. Or if we use the word “there” when “their” is correct, we’ll see “their.”

Mark Twain wasn’t a brain scientist, but he understood all this. He said about proofreading:

And then there is that other thing: when you think you are reading proof, whereas you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes & vacancies, but you don’t know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along.

There are some ways to “trick” your brain into seeing your copy fresh. One way is to read the text backwards, sentence by sentence.. Without the ability to put the text in context, your brain will be more likely to see grammar and spelling errors. You can accomplish some of the same things if you read paragraphs out of order.

You might read your text out loud. This will help you circumvent the brain’s autocorrect process.

Printing the document may also help you “see” the text differently.

Or, have someone else review your text. Another reader will see the errors your brain is screening out. Freelancers are available to help you with this.

Freelancers can help with all aspects of your writing, from proofreading to more substantive editing, to research and original writing.

A freelancer reviewing your text may be more likely to see things as your judge will, as someone who’s coming to your case fresh. A freelancer will be able to give you ideas on how to address the judge’s concerns, and can help you implement those ideas, if you like.

So think about your writing. What techniques can you use to overcome your own natural tendency not to “see” your own errors? When you build in time for proofreading, think about when it will help to bring in a freelancer to work alongside you.

Karen graduated from William Mitchell College of Law in 1986, first in her class. She then clerked for three years: one year for a Minnesota Supreme Court justice, and two years for a federal district court judge. Later she became a partner at two firms…

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