I struggle to proofread my own writing. I don’t keep it a secret. Some of the reasons I struggle are common to everyone. Others are connected to the fact that for years, I struggled with “d” and “g”. When I started learning to type (yes, I did that thing at school), I used to get “d” and “k” mixed up: if you are touch typing – yes, that’s what I was learning (and yes, I still can) – you use the same finger for those letters – the middle one. But on different hands.
When I was learning to write, the “d-g” issue was never identified as a “problem”. I have mostly grown out of it. As I have that typing error, which with a severe dose of the nerves, resulted in my failing the subject when I finished school. That – and the implications – is a conversation for another time.
When I was thinking about this piece, I had already planned much of what I wanted to say – in my head. I thought that it might be interesting to find out what ChatGPT had to say. Below is a screenshot with my first, broad question, and the response:
I was underwhelmed. So I said –
I was still underwhelmed. Not because the bot was wrong – all the reasons that it gave are valid – but rather I was looking for a somewhat deeper explanation.
As an aside to this digression, I I delved a bit deeper into ChatGPT and what it “delivers” from a writer for hire’s perspective.
Learning to write for reading – filling in the blanks
My first job was writing distance learning materials for second language English learners. What we all wrote had to be accessible to the learner. It was then that I learned the value of active language and plain English. I also learned about closure.
Having my writing tested
Writing for other people means that we cannot be precious about “our” writing. As a novice, my employer had to test to see whether my writing would do the job. I had to select a piece that our resident Tester converted into an exercise in which students (ours were all adult learners) participated. This test involved taking a passage from one of my lessons and blanking out every sixth or so word. Then, they gave it to a group of typical students who had to fill in the blanks to see how readable it was. This is a cloze test and it’s also useful for teaching things like vocabulary and comprehension. Yes, we’re all familiar with the fill-in-the-blanks exercise.
What I my writing scored isn’t relevant. What is, is that in my early 20s, I learned that one’s writing can be predictable. If your reader can fill in the blanks, so will you. Whether they’re there or not. This is something we need to bear in mind when we proofread our own work.
Our brains automatically fill in the blanks.
Another digression: readability is not just about words
Readability is also about how the text is presented. Our eyes (brains) expect certain patterns including the spaces between words. When we write by hand (if you still do!), the spaces between your words, are pretty regular right? Similarly, this typed text on your screen.
Let’s look at a screenshot of the same paragraph, below, laid out differently:
That last sentence is quite awkward to read, isn’t it?
So, in laying out writing, the decision is whether the page looks pretty and organised, or whether you really want the reader to engage with the writing?
Patterns and expectations
Humans are “wired” to see patterns. This means that we unconsciously fill in the gaps – in pictures – and in our writing.
This is what underpins Gestalt theory which informs visual and web design. It’s best understood by the phrase that we all often bastardise, “the whole is something else than the sum of its parts” attributed to Kurt Koffka, one of the founders of Gestalt psychology.
Proofreading is hard
So, ChatGPT is not wrong when it says that proofing our own writing is hard because we are familiar with it. Yes, our brains automatically correct the mistakes. I wanted to get into why we overlook the mistakes and the typos that inevitably creep into our writing – even as we revise and edit our pieces to make them better.
Watch out for my proofreading tips.