First impressions and fresh eyes

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” This quote has been attributed to Will Rogers, Oscar Wilde, and Mark Twain — there is disagreement as to the original author — and has been used to sell everything from men’s suits to dandruff shampoo.

Regardless of who first said it, its truth is not disputed. The adage can be applied to job interviews, sales calls, and first dates.

It also applies to our writing. Whether it’s website text, a press release, a newsletter, or an email about an upcoming event, our written words are often the first way others learn about our college, our programs, and our people.

What first impression do we make if our material has typos or other errors?

Errors can be costly

According to Professor William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, errors can cause concerns over whether a website or communication — and the people or organization behind it — is credible and trustworthy.

If those reading your content find reason to doubt your credibility or competence, the result could be fewer people attending your event, learning about your research, or buying your product.

For example, Charles Duncombe, an online marketer in the United Kingdom, found that fixing a simple spelling mistake on a website accounted for a 100 percent increase in sales.

Put fresh eyes to work

We all make mistakes, but it’s hard to catch our own errors. One reason is because we’ve already looked at what we’re writing a dozen times, and we know what it’s supposed to say. That causes our eyes to skip over mistakes and instead see what we know should be there.

Psychologist Tom Stafford with the University of Sheffield, quoted in the Aug. 12, 2014, edition of Wired, says that writers don’t see their own typos because, “When you are writing, you’re trying to convey meaning. It’s a very high level task.”

In other words, when the brain is focused on the complex task of conveying ideas, it is difficult to see the individual letters, commas, and sentences involved.

That’s why it’s so important to have someone who is not familiar with the material — a fresh pair of eyes — review it for misspellings, factual errors, and grammatical issues.

Proofreading your own work

If you have to proof your own work, here are some ideas for helping you pinpoint errors:

  • Print it out. For most people, it’s easier to proof on paper than on a computer screen. Before printing, double-space the text.
  • Use a ruler. A ruler helps because it keeps the eyes from jumping ahead. Clear plastic rulers don’t work for this purpose. Another option is sliding a piece of paper in a contrasting color (a bright or dark color works best) down the page as you read line by line.
  • Read aloud. Turn on the white noise or go to a quiet location and read the text out loud. Or have someone else read it to you.
  • Change it up. Before reviewing, try printing it in a different font — something wider and different from what you usually use. And while you’re at it, print the text on brightly colored paper to make it stand out.
  • Back it up. Some people suggest reading a document from the end to the beginning. This trick might help with locating out-and-out typos (an extra letter or transposed letters), but it doesn’t help with grammar errors or homophone misuse (there, their, or they’re).

For more information about the science behind typos, check out Nick Stockton’s article in Wired, “What’s Up With That: Why It’s So Hard To Catch Your Own Typos.”

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