Intake Blog

Trouble proofreading? Blame it on your brain.

posted October 16, 2012 by Jessica Catz

Do you ever wonder why, even after carefully reading a document, you still overlook mistakes? Well, you can blame it on your brain.

In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” David Khaneman explores how humans think. He explains that the mind uses two systems to process information, which he labels System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is the instinctual part of your thinking self, the part that operates mostly without conscious awareness. It’s responsible for most of our actions. For example, my nose itches, so I scratch it without any contemplation—that’s System 1 at work. It’s reactive, impulsive and designed to make quick decisions.

System 2 on the other hand, is the rational part of your thinking self, the part that does require conscious awareness. Here’s an example of System 2 at work: I need to have a difficult conversation with a client, so I consider possible ways of conducting the discussion. As you can see System 2 is more methodical, slow moving and is designed to help us think critically.

Now, let’s look at how this applies to proofreading.

Proofreading takes effort. It requires you to maintain several items in your memory at one time—items that require you to take different actions, such as adding a period or correcting a misspelling, to follow grammatical rules. It takes effort and conscious thought, which calls upon System 2. The longer you proofread, the more tired System 2 becomes.

The result? You miss things.

So, how can you take advantage of the quick, impulsive, System 1 while engaging the rational, methodical, System 2?

It’s simple: Focus on one task at a time. Rather than proofread for spelling, grammar and punctuation all at once, read through the text for each one separately.

Why does this work? It works because it creates recognition patterns. It allows System 2 to do a little heavy lifting in the beginning (defining the pattern to look for i.e., missing periods) and then lets it off the hook by creating a shortcut for System 1 to follow (i.e., scanning only for missing periods).

With practice, you’ll train System 1 and System 2 to work together this way and it will take less and less effort to pick up mistakes.

Next time you are working on a document, give it a try and free up System 2 for the important stuff in life, like building a communications plan, leading a brainstorming session or figuring out the age old dilemma of what to eat for lunch.