Monday, March 14, 2011

The Power of Novelty in Visual Perception (or, how I screwed up the company newsletter)

I work for a private mental health agency, and on top of seeing clients, I have a lot of other responsibilities. Like program evaluation and outcomes research. Training. Supporting quality control processes.

And, for some reason only understood by my boss, I also have to write the newsletter (those of you who actually know me personally will understand how funny that is).

Because our company is comprised of therapists who either go out to people's homes or practice in doctors' offices statewide, I've been doing profiles of our employees and contractors to help them connect with one another. You know, a picture and some background on the person.

Last week, I was doing this newsletter at the last minute, as always, and I put together three lovely therapist profiles and sent it out.

One of the profiles ended with the following sentence: "she participates in a training program at a local Marital Arts Center."

Did you spot the typo right away? I didn't, at least, not before I sent it out to about 120 of this poor therapist's colleagues. And I really did read it over a couple of times before I hit SEND, I swear.

Why aren't we efficient typo-catchers with our own work?

Well, I'll tell you why, because I know you were wondering. Our eye is greatly affected by what we expect to see. So much of our understanding of the world is based on the mind's ability to fill in blanks, to skip efficiently over visual information, fill in gaps, and form a cohesive whole from it. When I know the word I expect to see, sometimes it's hard to spot the missing or switched letters. But also, if it's something I've looked at several times in quick succession, my eyes skim over it even more, because I'm already used to looking at it.

Some things that might help:
  1. Obviously, have someone else read it (I don't have time to have everything proofread at work, but it's great for my creative writing if beta-readers help me with it)
  2. Set it aside and come back to it later (some of the novelty wears off if you give your brain a long enough rest from the material)
  3. Look at it in a different way (some people have talked about the benefits of printing pages instead of reading on a computer screen, and I think the novelty of looking at the printed page might help the author spot things)
  4. Take it line by line. When I make recommendations for kids diagnosed with ADHD, one of them is often to break things down, including using a paper or ruler to help the kid read one line at a time and really focus instead of getting overwhelmed by the whole page. I think this works for everyone--when it's needed.
  5. Read it right to left. Just another way to force novelty onto something you've looked at a billion times (not the most practical, I know, but if you hate typos as much as I do, it might be worth it)
What are your techniques for typo avoidance? Did you find any typos in this post? And are you skilled in marital arts (no, wait--please don't answer that)?

Take the time to check out the fabulous Lydia's Medical Monday post, as well as Laura's always awesome Mental Health Monday post!


  1. This reminds me of the analogy I gave when you did the TML post. About being able to read a street sign that you can't actually see. Great post!

    And I don't think it's surprising at all that you write the newsletter. You're an excellent writer.

  2. Hmm... I try leaving the edits for as long as possible before I go hunting out mistakes. Usually typos leap out at me when I get round to looking for them.


  3. LOL okay, I saw the typo right away but there is a certain amount of fun to be had in trying to determine exactly what "marital arts" might be:) Ah, yup. I struggle with this. Typos, especially certain ones are the evil little buggers that I somtimes miss because my eyes have already glazed over:)

  4. Oh, guys, I just have to share this with you--this morning I was researching martial arts classes for my kids, and right there on one of the studios' websites it says "KRAV MAGA. The fastest growing adult Marital Art"! Should I use their contact form to let them know about the typo?

  5. LOL. I didn't see the typo. I read it as martial arts.

    I change the font when I read through something I've already read several times. It's amazing how many errors I pick up that way.

  6. i did see the typo- but i'm so silly i thought, "hmmm... i've never heard of marital arts- i wonder what that means?" instead of "BUSTED!!" *highlight* like i do when i'm critting. :)

    an alternative to printing-out can be changing font type or color on your document. sometimes that looks novel enough to help me (cuz i'm too broke- read:cheap- to spend that much on ink) :)

    i find the way the human mind percieves and compensates for inadequate information intriguing. i've been having a lot of discussions with my hubby about the differences of thought process and perception lately. i find it so interesting that he thinks in words, learns best while listening to a lecture, when he remembers something it's like an audio recording playing back in his head, he spells completely phonetically (part of that is the dyslexia), and the words he chooses while writing something are based completely on the logical/ comfortable usage.
    while i think almost completely in images (sometimes concepts- rarely ever words). i learn best from visual aids or hands-on experience, when i remember things they are like a photograph or a silent video image, when i spell it's usually from copying an image of the word as it appears in typeset on a white piece of paper in my brain, and when i choose words while writing- the words i choose are often picked because of the way they sound. like translating a scene into the music of staccato c's and t's or the softnesses of short o or whatever... i'm sure that's pretty convoluted there-

    but the differences in thought process are so fascinating to me! like andrew smith's latest post about the typeset in stick.

    sometimes i think that the gap-filling-in ability of our brains is one of the greatest aides in the ability to decipher communication and to problem solve.

    like you're always saying, and i'm a long-time believer of: it's double edged- there are positive things about it and negative things about it...
    great post as usual sarah!!! :)

  7. I didn't think it was a typo. I thought "Marital Arts Center" was a marriage counseling place and it was part of her work!

  8. Love that idea of changing the font when proofreading. Except for seriously careful people, though, I think beta readers are a must. It's why copyeditiing is so desperately needed in the publishing industry!!

  9. Ha, just read my comment and oops, there it is, a typo.

  10. OMG That's so totally something I would do. And I love how you relate it to writing. It's a wonder we catch most of the typos in our work. BTW, I honestly thought I'd already followed you!! I clicked the button though and rectified the situation. (I hope I wrote the word I thought I did there cuz that could get embarrassing)

  11. I laughed so loud I scared my dog. That has to be the BEST typo ever.

    For typo avoidance, I do #1, 2, and 4. But hey, if I ever type 'marital arts', I don't think I'll ever change it :)

  12. hi miss sarah! i use a program called BBCT and that for "big brother checks for typos" ha ha. im real lucky cause one of my older brothers thats is college reads my stuff and he makes all my typos in red so i could know what to fix. some one else sometimes could see stuff you dont.
    ...hugs from lenny

  13. LOL! I *hate* typos, but miss them from time to time...I'm not patient enough to go through writing as carefully as I should.

  14. Heh heh...marital arts center. I've been trying to keep away from the ms for a while, so I can more easily catch typos. However, it seems like an extra pair of eyes always works better. Great post!

  15. I try to catch typos by printing, but it's not fool-proof. For some reason words with 'ei' or 'ie' have been deviling me lately.

    It took me awhile to figure out the typo in your newsletter, thinking as others that marital arts was a reasonable name for couples therapy.

    I have a blog award for you back on my site, if you'd like to stop by sometime.

    Happy Typo Hunting all.

  16. Nice. For the same reason you gave - we see what we expect to see - most of the poeple who got the newsletter probably did not see it, either.

    It's like that email that went around a while back, where all of the letters in each word (save the first and last letters) were jumbled, but you could still read it if you skimmed it quickly.

    I type too quickly and WRONG (I don't use home keys, etc.) so I tend to flip letters a lot. This is fine unless the reversal (as in your "marital" case) happens to be a real word.

  17. I didn't see your typo at first. I like your tips, especially the last one. It would probably be annoying to read an entire document right to left, but it's an interesting way to catch a mistake.

  18. Well, I've tried all the self-help available for this problem, except for the different font. But maybe (just maybe) some of my typos are skimmed over because people know what I expect them to see? I can hope! :)