Sunday, May 19, 2013

Are you the victim of human auto-correct?

Do you find yourself sending an email only to notice glaring errors only moments later? Do you hit publish or post, only to find comments about your grammar, or lack thereof, sprinkled throughout subsequent comments and reviews? If so, you may be the victim of human auto-correct.

The human brain is a wonderful thing. It helps us make sense of a chaotic world and helps us react accordingly; but, similar to the auto-correct on your phone, the brain also subconsciously hides, or auto-corrects, inconsistencies, errors and omissions we encounter in the written word. A duplicate word becomes invisible, a misspelling is overlooked, and missing words are filled in.

Surely, you've seen blurbs where almost every word is a jumble of letters, but you were able to read the message anyway. Take the following example.

The qicuk bworn fox jmups oevr the lzay dgos.

You probably read this with no problems. In fact, so long as the first and last letter of a word is in place, most people's minds will substitute the correct word, especially if there's context to go with it.
This is fine for someone who's reading for fun, but if you're trying to put out a well-edited novel, an email, or even a Facebook post, it causes problems. Especially when that misspelled word is one of thousands, buried in the middle of a paragraph, or technically spelled correctly (but with a totally different meaning than you intended). And, what about this one?

Today's is sunny with a chance of showers.

I bet your mind replaced the missing word (or perhaps you just dropped the "is"). Ever wonder how someone can write a sentence and miss an entire word? We do it all the time. The good news is that there are things you can do to overcome the human brain's tendency to auto-correct:

1. Use spell and grammar check. This gives you a head start and highlights things like misspellings, double words, and incomplete sentences. Overcoming the brain's auto-correct for these things is tough. Why not use technology to your advantage?

2. Don't rely on spell and grammar check. It won't catch words that are spelled correctly, which also happen to mean something totally unintended. (Update September 15, 2013: I have since learned these are called homophones, meaning sound alikes.)

3. Review your work multiple times and focus on specific errors each time. Read once for flow, once for spelling, once for commas and paragraph breaks, etc. Forcing your brain to look for a specific feature, like double words, helps you perceive what your brain would normally overlook.

4. Review your work in different media formats. Try marking up the document on your word processor, on a pdf, and on a printed copy. Seeing the document in different formats forces your brain to look at it in a different way and may just give you the edge you need to overcome human auto-correct.

5. If possible, mark up the document on a different day than when you wrote it (and correct it on a different day than when you marked it up). The closer you are to the time you wrote the document, the more likely your brain will overlook the same errors.

6. Finally, slow down! Review slowly and read each word, each sentence, one at a time. If you're normally a speedy reader, slowly draw your finger along under the text to help you do this. This also help you isolate each word in your mind and help prevent your mind from taking over.

Remember, use technology to your advantage, review multiple times, review in multiple media, separate the act of writing and reviewing (and correcting), and slow down. Following these tips may help your solo editing efforts, but they're no substitute for getting more eyes on your document. Once you think you have it perfect, let someone else take a look.

I'd love to hear your own human auto-correct woes and solutions. Share them in the comments!