Just out of curiosity: did anyone ever have any luck with all those Magic Eye puzzles back in the '90s? You know what I'm talking about: the stereogram puzzles you'd hold right up to your face and pull away slowly, until some image emerged from the chaos of color.
I honestly never got very far with these things. Which was a real tragedy, since at my school, being able to spot those shapes was like the shibboleth of popularity.
"Can you see the picture?" Poppy McPopular would interrogate me on the recess grounds, after I'd laboriously inched the latest Magic Eye book away from my eyes.
"Y-Yes!" I'd reply. In reality, I could never see anything but a haze of jumbled and mildly nauseating colors, but I wanted desperately for Poppy to like me.
"Then what was it?" She'd quiz me, not to be fooled.
Thinking quickly, I'd always pipe up the first thing that came to mind.
"I think it's a dinosaur."
"WRONG! It's a top hat!"
Of course, a top hat!
And with that, Poppy would head off with the other cool kids to the corner of the playground, where they'd spend the rest of recess holding books to their eyes.
Looking back, it's a wonder we didn't all end up with migraines from those things. (On a slightly related note, I wouldn't recommend looking up "Magic Eye Puzzles" on google images. Especially not on a large-screen computer with a very bright screen. Asking for a friend.)
Even though a big part of me suspects those books were just a marketing ploy for elementary school book fairs across the country, the whole Magic Eye process is similar to that of learning to edit your own writing.
Often when we read our own work, we simply can't see mistakes--at least not the less obvious ones.
Getting better at seeing your own mistakes involves training yourself to read your work differently than you would upon first instinct. You have to viewing your work from other vantage points and angles--both conceptually and literally. Getting up close, backing away, scrutinizing. Over time, the more you train yourself, your mistakes begin to emerge from the haze of vaguely familiar, self-crafted prose.
In this post, I want to bring up three reading strategies you can use to better spot your own writing errors. Think of each method as a tool to weed out specific types of errors.
1.) Hold Your Writing at Different Angles
Print your project off onto actual paper and scan it with your eyes a bunch of different ways: sideways, upside down, etc. If you have no printer, you can actually switch the direction of your entire computer screen for a similar effect (ctrl+alt+the up arrow until you make it through all directions). Ideally, do this with each page of your work and glance through it paragraph-by-paragraph and page-by-page. You're not actually reading, your just looking at the general layout.
This helps you spot formatting and mechanical errors like pesky unintended indents, inconsistent margins, justified text, weird spacing issues, etc. It's also a good time to make sure that all your headings line up and are consistently numbered and formatted.
I'm sure we've all had our fair share of paranormal MS Word activity when it comes to formatting issues. The occasional occult tendencies of MS Word are compounded by the fact that our eyes can really only see so much on the computer screen. That's why I always suggest giving this reading strategy a gander, even if you're so sure you've double-checked your formatting. Recently, this same method helped me unearth a strange issue I've never come across before: approximately every other paragraph in the (book-length) manuscript I was looking at was in a slightly different color text than the others--a hue of black/gray just one imperceptible shade lighter than the "Automatic" text color in MS word. For whatever reason, it was only while scrolling through the text sideways that my eyes could pick up on the color variations. Neither the client nor I have any explanation for why this happened to certain chunks of text--but now, thankfully, it's fixed!
2.) Read Backwards
This is just like it sounds--start at the last word of your draft and read backwards, word by word. Alternatively, you can read backwards line by line. This is not going to be an enjoyable read, and probably would be too painstaking for larger, book-length projects. But this is a strategy to weed out minute, hard-to-spot errors--e.g. those lovely and eerily poetic un-puns MS spellcheck just loves to overlook (e.g. "My aunt dyed last June" or "Let's let the goat whey in on the issue." Although, side note, goat whey is apparently beneficial?)
Relatedly, I know one or two people who swear by reading their work upside down in the final stages of editing. This method has never done much for me (given my lackluster Magic Eye performance in grade school, we already know my optic repertoire is rather limited). But it might work for you, so give it a try.
3.) Edit Line by Line (or Word by Word)
Read your work straight through, one line at a time, without jumping ahead. This is very hard to do, especially since the advent of the internet--our brains are predisposed to skim. This is especially true when reading work you've written yourself--our minds are aimed at finding new information, and will subconsciously filter out what we have already been exposed to. A lot of times, if you are trying to line edit, your eyes will skip words or lines out of reflex, missing crucial mistakes-to-be-fixed.
There's a few ways to preventing this. One is to print off your work and use two blank sheets to cover up everything but one line at a time. For the fine-toothed-comb treatment, you can even go word by word by cutting out a word-sized window from a piece of paper and moving it along as you read. That's actually a strategy I learned all the way back in the Magic Eye era, when one of my teachers temporarily thought I might be dyslexic. It ended up being that I'm not, but I still remember the window-reading method I learned in the meantime. I continue to use it occasionally when I'm tempted to skim material.
Are you working on a computer screen and don't want to print? My friend and fellow editor Dimitra taught me this trick: adjust the size of your word document window so that it only shows only one or two lines of text at once. You'll still be able to scroll up and down, but it's a bit awkward to do so, forcing you to attend to small portions of text at a time. I use this all the time, not just for editing but reading articles and other long texts online--it really helps cut down on the internet-induced, skimming-and-clicking method of reading I usually fall into when staring at my computer screen.
Do you have any other tricks for spotting your own writing mistakes?
Writer's Loom Blog
In praise of tight writing in a world of loose ends.