That’s Not What I Thought I Wrote!
Photo by Extra Medium.
“Um… what did you mean here?”
Those words make every writer flinch, and every writer who gets feedback from others hears those words at some point. They can signal something as minor as a forgotten preposition or as major as having a section that doesn’t explain itself well. Once the problem’s pointed out to you, it’s as obvious as a huge red zit without concealer. How could you have possibly missed that?!
Easy. When you read it yourself, you read what you meant to say rather than what you actually wrote. Everybody does it. It’s unavoidable.
What you can do is minimize it.
Remember all that crazy-sounding stuff your English teacher told you back in school? You know, the finishing your paper a few days early and reading it backwards nonsense that nobody ever did. (Okay, so maybe some people occasionally did the first, but whoever actually did the second without being desperate for a passing grade?)
As silly as those things may sound, English teachers harp on them for a reason. They work.
To keep yourself from submitting that article with the wrong preposition (or the forgotten sentence), you can try a few different things. Each one has strengths and weaknesses, so you can use all of them, or you can just stick to the methods that best suit your weak areas.
Wait at least an hour, preferably a day or week, before proofreading.
The longer something is, and the longer you’ve spent writing it, the longer it’s best to wait.
If you only have time for a short break of a day or less, find something intensely distracting to do in that break, so you forget as much of what you wrote as possible. Reading bad fan fiction can work for some people in a pinch, if you dare do that to yourself. Listening to music or watching an unrelated movie can also help.
The longer your wait, the more you’ve forgotten of what you’ve written, the better this method works. It can help you notice both typos and clarity issues.
Print it out, preferably with a bright pen handy for marking errors.
(I find bright pink ink the easiest to both notice and read, myself, but that might stem from my dislike of bright red.) This tip may not be the cheapest one on the list, but puts the least amount of strain on your eyes.
Your eyes actually process words differently on the computer screen than on paper, so that printout can make all the difference in making yourself see what’s actually there over what you meant to say, and it’ll even work immediately after you wrote the article.
As well as this can work for grammar and typographical errors, it’s not the best method for finding problems with how you explained something, unless you combine this method with a wait.
Read it aloud, and no, you don’t have to read it to anyone.
Just mumble along and notice where you stumble over what you wrote. No need to let the world hear you.
Any tongue-twisters are sure signs of things that could use changing. (That alliterative sentence is probably not nearly as cute as you think it is. And that fiveline long one where you used the thesaurus doesn’t exactly sound academic…)
This method works great for finding sentence and paragraph problems. It can also help with typos, but that’s mostly if you’re good with spelling.
Read it backwards, word by word.
After that, start at the end again and read sentence by sentence. Then read it back to front, paragraph by paragraph.
As nonsensical as this sounds, it works by rearranging your words out of the order you intended to put them in so you see the order they’re actually in. Then you rearrange the sentences to see what they actually say by themselves, and then you do the same with the paragraphs.
If you’re prone to typos and don’t have time to wait, this method is for you in particular. This method doesn’t work quite so well for clarity issues, because the logical structure gets slaughtered.
All the methods can be used together, or a writer can pick and choose which to try. For someone who doesn’t have time to wait, reading an article backwards, then reading it aloud, can catch most of his errors. Someone who quotes grammar rules and types with accuracy can get away with doing a lot less than someone who struggles with his grammar handbook and wars with his keyboard.
Everyone, though, needs to do something.
As for me, I’ve picked my method of choice, and it works well enough. If I have particular trouble with something, I pull in the others, but usually I don’t need them.
What I do is wait.