Why good copy editors are ‘abnormal’ humans

There are a multitude of factors that can come into play when a mistake occurs.

When I give workshops about the source of journalistic errors and how to prevent them, I point to big-bucket causes such as the tools we use, and the processes we follow. Soon I get to a very personal cause of error: the human brain.

Our brains are, as Yuka Igarashi writes in a lovely essay about human error for The Guardian’s Mind Your Language blog, “the original autocorrectors”. And she doesn’t mean that in a good way.

We see things that aren’t there and miss things that are. Yes, our eyes literally play tricks on us. We miss obvious typos. We’re prone to linguistic mistakes such as the anticipation error that causes so many journalists to speak of a man named “Obama Bin Laden.”

“What is happening in that specific case … is that the speaker has anticipated the ‘b’ of Bin laden and moved it up to replace the ‘s’ in Osama,” Michael Erard, author of Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean told me back in 2011. “That is an anticipation error, where there is a string of sounds and the person basically jumps ahead in the string and selects one sound too soon and inserts it.”

Our brains sometimes lead us astray and we’re left wondering “Why did I say that?” or “How did I miss that?”

It’s such a common, natural state of affairs that Igarashi, the managing editor of Granta, offers the suggestion that “anyone whose job it is to catch these mistakes – editors, copyeditors, subeditors, proofreaders – has to be an abnormal and malfuctioning [sic] human.”

Editors often talk about coming at a piece of text with “fresh eyes” in order to see things in a different way. What this means, and what Igarashi is playfully hinting at, is that we have to hack our brains in order to get past innate blind spots and re-orient towards spotting mistakes.

If you’re a good editor, you’re “able to look at a page without using your brain,” Igarashi writes. “Put another way, you need to be able to look at words in a way that goes against everything your brain would naturally do when it looks at words.”

Stalwart copy editor John McIntyre of The Baltimore Sun models a green eyeshade at the 2000 ACES conference.

I imagine the old newspaper proofreaders undergoing a transformation when they pulled on their green eyeshades to attack a text. The Hulk turned green; they just need a tint of it to see things anew.

The key is effecting a transformation into error-spotting mode. What’s your trick?

Simply expecting that you can avoid and identify all manner of typos and factual errors and other mistakes during the course of journalistic work is to ignore the error-prone processor perched atop your neck.

“In the end, there’s no switch we can press on to turn off the wildly interpolative, inaccurate, imaginative text decoder built into our systems, which is of course what sets us apart, for the time being and for better or for worse, from our machines,” Igarashi writes.

Long live abnormal and malfunctioning humans!

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  • Padma Rao

    There’s an error in your first sentence. It should read: There IS a multitude of factors (not ‘are), etc. Sorry ! Otherwise, great story…

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Yes, ironic! This is why we included the [sic] after that word in the quote.

    ~Mallary Tenore

  • Brooke

    Did anyone else notice they misspelled “malfuctioning” in the 7th paragraph?

  • Valerie Brooks

    I find this topic fun fodder about how the human brain works. When I write book reviews (only 350 words), I have my husband proof them. My proofing eye didn’t catch the error when, by the end of the review, a character named “Brandon” had morphed into “Braden.”

  • justmyopinion

    Wonderful article. I was once challenged to proof a 25-page document after 10 people had proofed it. I found in excess of two dozen mistakes previously unnoticed (each piece was proofed by its writer, as well). I’m not as sharp as I once was, but I truly “love” having this unique ability.

  • Sheila Petticord

    Representational artists face the same “autocorrecting” challenge. The artist must learn how to see, and to paint or draw what she sees, not what she thinks she sees.

  • Monica

    Ummm. It’s “bin Laden.”

  • http://tedschnell.blogspot.com/ Ted Schnell

    Some of us are a little weird, and I say that affectionately about the many copy editors I’ve worked with over the years and who ultimately have been screwed by an industry that, sadly, found most of us expendable, no matter how good we were at what we did. In my mind, that’s just one more step the news industry is taking down the road to irrelevance.

    Media organizations by and large seem intent on shooting themselves in the foot anyway they can. For decades, it seems, the rush to get the scoop time and again has resulted in sometimes horrific errors (Dewey Defeats Truman, for instance). Why should we worry about taking the time to have someone actually edit a story when an algorithm can catch most spelling and even grammatical errors? Of course, the mistake is compounded when you expect the righter to catch his/her own mistakes.

    So fact-checking, and editing a story to ensure the necessary context and flow are there for it to make sense are left by the wayside, along with the attentive copy editor, who is left scratching his head in wonder that his or her work doesn’t matter anymore.

    And the world we as an industry say we want to keep well-informed do so, accepting an often poorly edited, sometimes incomprehensible product that does little t serve the reader and, from what I’ve seen frequently, often serves only to perpetuate illeteracy among a public who does not know the differences between their, they’re and there; too, two and to; it’s and its … Need I go on.

    I guess that at age 54, I’m disillusioned, more than a little bitter, and very, very disappointed in an industry I have been passionate about for most of my 30 years in it.


  • http://www.deepaktiwari.in/ Deepak Tiwari

    I am a copy editor but not a good copy editor that means I am normal.

  • HankoTanko

    That sounds like a pretty broad statement to me dude.


  • danbloom

    and don’t forget about the new problem of “atomic typos” — small typos, usually one letter misplaced but still spelled correctly for the other word, such as nuclear vs unclear — called “atomic typos” not to mention “crash blossoms” in headlines. Oi.

  • KateGladstone

    Hmmm … I make a good few bucks as a copy-editor, and I have Asperger’s Syndrome:bsome of whose symptoms overlap pretty neatly with the type of “abnormal humanness” you describe.
    Quite a few other “Aspues,” similarly, make good livings catching/correcting the bugs in computer programs, working as continuity editors (“blooper-catchers”) for TV/film, and so on

    This supports your case.

  • Adrienne Montgomerie

    I read the words _through_ the coloured ruler. Was that obvious? Coloured acetate would work too, but the ruler was in my desk drawer.

  • Adrienne Montgomerie

    Another: I have the computer read the text to me.
    On my last project, checking the manuscript for the 100th time in 6 months… I really needed that computer voice to help me slow down and focus on what was actually written. It’s kind of the tech version of team proofreading. It helped me catch a polo bear.

  • http://www.boutotcom.com/ bruno boutot

    In fact, “reader’s snow plow” would make a better metaphor than “reader’s advocate” (I’ll let that job to @Sulliview) for the “flow” part of editing: I hope it’s obvious that the main part of editing is journalism.

  • http://www.CraigSilverman.ca CraigSilverman

    Looking forward to checking out these links. I’ve also never heard the ruler tip before, so thank you for that, Adrienne!

  • http://www.CraigSilverman.ca CraigSilverman

    As I said on Twitter Bruno, this is a wonderful comment. Thank you!

  • Adrienne Montgomerie

    A clear, coloured ruler helps me spot typos on paper. There really is a cognitive effect due to changing the colour. That green visor does the trick! On screen, changing the font or highlighting each line helps a lot. Also, knowing my own weaknesses helps: I pay extra attention to words that are often confused or that look too similar (angel for angle), and always look up idioms since they almost never appear in what I read or edit.

    But, like Bruno, I don’t much like the feeling of using the proofreader’s eye. It’s exhausting. I much prefer to apply the degree of latitude that allows the language to evolve, and leave the proofreading to the experts.

    You present great sources in support of your statements. I read a couple others recently and wonder what you think of them:

    Adrian Furnham on proofreader’s mind as one in a set of personality traits: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sideways-view/201308/the-fetishistic-grammarian

    Dr. Panko of the University of Hawaii reviews studies on error rates in proofreading, but doesn’t link this to personality defects: http://panko.shidler.hawaii.edu/HumanErr/Index.htm

    (And I wrote a brief opinion at http://www.copyediting.com/error-rates-editing.)

  • http://www.boutotcom.com/ bruno boutot

    There are several “error-spotting modes” depending on the kind of error you are looking for. I know how to tune into the proofreading mode, for example, but I don’t like it very much. The one that I enjoy the most – and that is very easy for me to get into – is the editing mode. The “trick” is to tune myself into “any reader” and to spot anything that interrupts the natural flow of reading.

    Because “interrupting the natural flow” is a deadly sin: you’ll probably lose the reader.

    Hence sentences have to be short or very well balanced; acronyms have to be spelled out the first time they are mentioned; any quoted person should be defined (work title, relevance to the story) before the quote or after the first comma (Who is talking?); any new, strange or trade word should be defined or explained (there are ways to do it without it looking like a definition), etc.

    My job as an editor is not to be clever or to understand everything or to deduce anything; it is to un-know everything. When I am editing, I am not a bright reader, I am my reader’s advocate.