Why is it the obvious mistakes that always get overlooked?

By Brigid Auchettl (Content Strategist)

Mentally Friendly
Aug 23, 2017 · 5 min read

I don’t know about you, but I love playing “spot the typo” at restaurants. You know when you’re flipping through a restaurant menu and see that their “special” is actually spelt “speical”. In fact, it was while spotting one of these typos that I had the idea to write this article. While eating out recently my partner pointed out the very obvious error. I know what you’re thinking, just eat your chicken burger in peace and leave! But sadly as a former journalist, I can’t help but pick up on mistakes in menus or signs, it’s like a kind of literary OCD (turns out I’m not alone).

So I began thinking, why is it usually the simple ideas or content that we we write that’s riddled with mistakes? In fact, I bet you missed my mistake just then. Didn’t you?

As a content writer, my knack for picking out spelling or grammatical errors is a helpful skill — although my partner would argue it’s a strong cause of embarrassment when eating at restaurants, especially when I insist on taking a picture to chuckle about later.

This sign irritated me for the remainder of my meal. So close, yet so far.

So why does this happen? Are we just lazy?

You may think that being sloppy and rushing work results in the most errors. But in fact, the reason typos slip through isn’t because we’re stupid or inattentive, it’s because what we’re doing while writing is a very high level task that requires focus and attention!

Psychologist Tom Stafford, who studies typos at the University of Sheffield, states that while writing you’re simultaneously trying to convey meaning (a high level task). When completing high level tasks your brain generalises simple component parts like turning letters into words, and words into sentences. This is so we can focus on more complex tasks such as combining sentences into more complex ideas.

Common mistakes are made when writing because we focus on meaning rather than grammar or spelling

When it comes to missing simple errors, being too close to your work or ideas can be a contributing factor. When we’re writing and proofreading our work, grammar usually takes a back seat to meaning. We understand the meaning as we’ve crafted the idea and conveyed it by putting our thoughts onto the page. It’s easy to miss mistakes and gaps when parts of the meaning is missing as we’re expecting meaning to be there at a surface level.

Nick Stockton speaks to this in his article, “What’s up with that: Why it’s so hard to catch your own typos”. Stockton reasons that we don’t see our own typos, because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.

“This can be something as trivial as transposing the letters in “the” to “hte,” or something as significant as omitting the core explanation of your article,” he says.

By this stage you’re probably thinking to yourself, “why wouldn’t you just get someone else to proofread it for you? Duh”. Well, yes. Having a fresh pair of eyes over your work should always be utilized as it mitigates you being too close to your work. However, writing to a tight deadline doesn’t always enable time for work to be proofread by someone else.

So how do we overcome this? A couple of helpful tips I’ve learnt when it comes to proofreading your own content is to force yourself to read word for word, backwards, as it helps spot spelling mistakes. By reading the sentence backwards and taking words out of context, you’re forced to see the word as it is, which generally makes it easier to catch errors.

Or, if you’re looking to proofread for context, read your paper out loud. This helps as when we read silently, our eyes skip over small errors, awkward or run-on sentences, and typos. By reading out loud, you force yourself to notice everything from spelling and word choice to the structure of sentences.

How does this work at MF?

This got me thinking, is this only relevant for writers or did this happen within other disciplines? Is it always the simplest or easiest tasks that get overlooked? When creating products or services at Mentally Friendly, we facilitate usability and hallway testing to determine what changes may need to be made — in fact, you could even call this practise a type of “proofread”. Without testing or “proofreading”, it’s easier for mistakes or issues arise and go unnoticed.

MF Designer, Chris Ellis, said that within design the “glaringly obvious mistake” that most commonly affects resulting work would be some designers feeling the need to overdesign.

“Designers sometimes feel they have to put their own spin on every detail of the design”, he said.

“Some things have been engineered over decades and for some reason designers feel they have to touch every aspect of the product.”

“Designers should rely on defined UI patterns and focus on solving the user’s day to day need — rather than how the scroll-bar should be designed for this product.”

It seems that writers and designers both struggle with mistakes when it comes to demonstrating our knowledge — we know the meaning we want to convey as we’ve crafted the idea and put our thoughts out on the page. With design it’s about showing your skill, and when crafting content the focus is more about your understanding of the idea or article theme.

So, next time you see a typo at in a restaurant menu or in an article like this, think about the effort your brain puts in behind the scenes and cut yourself some slack! Know that that mistake you made was because you were hyper focused, not negligent or sloppy. I know I will.


This piece was written by Brigid Auchettl, our Content Strategist.

👏 We’re Mentally Friendly. Based in Sydney we are an agile digital product studio that strives to create meaningful and engaging experiences that solve real needs.

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