What do you do when your piece of writing no longer looks like the ideas, shapely rhetoric, and graceful sentences you put into it but a pool of melting ugh on the page? Ideally, you put it away—for a few hours, a day, a weekend, a decade. But if your deadline is within the hour? Hack the system.
The system, in this case, is your brain. It is so smart that it knows how to read misspelled words and glosses over all kinds of minor obstacles to glean meaning. Also, it doesn’t spend time noticing stuff you’ve already seen; it’s after novelty. This system is great for the survival and development of our species but not so good at catching small (but potentially annoying and reputation-busting) errors in our own work.
How to Trick Your Brain into Noticing Errors
Have someone read the paper to you. No one around? Read it out loud to yourself.
Print it out. If you don’t usually do that, your brain will pay more attention.
Change the font. Make it really big. Make it ugly. If the writing looks good in Comic Sans, it’s probably pretty good writing. (Just don’t forget to change it back!)
Change the background color.
Change your environment. Usually write at the kitchen table? Take your laptop or printed copy to a coffee shop, a library, your backyard—anywhere you don’t usually work on your writing.
Tech Hacks for Proofreading
Prefer to use an app to help you proofread? Here are some strategies to try:
Use a speedreading app, like Readsy (on the web) or RushReader (for mobile). These apps use a technology called Spritz, which presents one word at a time in the same place, so your eyes don’t have to move. The purpose of these apps is to train you to read faster, but if you keep the adjustable speed on a slower setting, they’re great for proofreading, too. Here’s an example of what Readsy looks like in action:
Use a text-to-speech app to have your computer or device read the writing to you. Most devices have some sort of text-to-speech app built in: VoiceOver for Mac and iOS devices; Narrator for Windows, Talkback for Android devices.
You find the article in an online database but print it out for highlighting. You show up to class with a laptop (dead battery, no charger) and a pen (no paper). You’re reading an ebook, but your style guide is full of advice for citing print books. It’s not just you—today’s reading and writing environment is beautiful mess, a hybrid of the print and the digital.
This hybrid environment can leave all of us writers and researchers—students and professionals alike—confused about how to get started, keep track of research and organize a project, facilitate focus amid constant distractions and massive amounts of text and information, and iterate drafts. But entrepreneurial readers and writers can take advantage of this environment by developing unique combinations of strategies and methods that leverage their strengths and make sense for their projects.
With our pals in the Munday Library, we’ve developed the following big-picture sampler, with links to many resources on campus and online, of strategies that readers and writers might pull from as they develop unique processes.
Serious about developing your writing skills? In the Good Reads on Writing series, we’ll suggest some books and articles in which writers give insider tips, complain about their writing problems, and tell stories about how they got from idea or assignment to published work.
If you’re in a certain mood, you might find the title Good Prose (find it at the Austin Public Library)to be a reminder that most of the writing we do is not going to be great, and that even our best efforts might result in something that’s merely good enough. But it’s also a reminder that writing that good-enough stuff is hard work, real work. Authors Tracy Kidder, a writer, and Richard Todd, his editor for many years at the Atlantic, make no secrets of the many drafts tossed in the wastebasket during the process of crafting articles and books. Over the four decades that Todd and Kidder worked together, they’ve come up with lots of golden advice. Here are a few nuggets from the book:
There are two kinds of rewriting: tinkering with words and sentences, and actually writing the thing again.
Write a first draft as quickly as possible. Then you won’t feel so bad about yourself when you have to scrap the whole thing.
Be wary of using voices that try to nuzzle up too close to the reader.
Sometimes you must sacrifice beloved parts for the survival of the whole.
Don’t mess with chronology unless you have an extremely good reason to do so.
“Something is always wrong with a draft.”
“All prose responds to work.”
The book itself exemplifies clarity we should all strive for in writing. It’s a product of editorial synthesis, the result of collaboration between a writer and an editor who are equally relentless. Few writers have this relationship, but if you happen into one, by all means, don’t let it go.