Why writers and editors make simple, preventable mistakes

The same internal wiring that makes us efficient also makes us error prone.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” — Voltaire

As a professional writer and editor, I create content for others to read in print and online. And though I strive for perfection in everything I produce, I am far from perfect, and my mistakes are out in the open for all to see.

As a writer, I accept this. As an editor, the kick in the head is that no matter how hard I try—proofreading backward and forward, fact checking, checking sources, etc.—simple, preventable errors still occur.

Reasons for errors include relying on old knowledge, making assumptions, narrowly focusing on one thing and missing what’s next to it. Errors that are obvious to others can be invisible to us, no matter how hard we try to spot them.

According to Joseph T. Hallinan, author of the book “Why We Make Mistakes,” humans have design flaws that set us up for mistakes. The same qualities that make us efficient also make us error prone. We learn to move rapidly through the world, quickly recognizing patterns but overlooking details.

“We are subconsciously biased, quick to judge by appearances, and overconfident in our own abilities,” Hallinan writes.

The book describes a study by a group of Mayo Clinic physicians who reviewed old chest X-rays of patients who would later develop lung cancer. Initially, radiologists found them to be normal, but the team re-examining the scans saw that 90 percent of the tumors had been clearly visible. This is an example of the very human mistake of “looked but didn’t see.”

Hallinan even made a mistake on his website; a reader pointed out a dropped word in a sentence.

“I didn’t notice it, my editor’s didn’t notice it, and nobody else looking at the website noticed it, but one reader in Ohio did,” he writes. “The reason this one reader succeeded where others failed is that he is a slow reader and reads word by word, rather than scanning the pages.”

Readers, care to share any experiences with “looked but didn’t see” errors?

Laura Hale Brockway is the author of the writing and editing blog Impertinent Remarks.

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