Why We Can’t See Our Own Mistakes

Why We Can’t See Our Own Mistakes

One of the sadder facts of life is that we tend to see others’ errors more quickly and readily than our own. The tiny speck in our neighbor’s eye is almost always more apparent than the gaping 2×4 sticking out of our own.

Nowhere is this truer than in writing and editing.

How many times have you written something and polished it to a shine, only to find a glaring mistake the very next time you look at it? (Which, by the way, is usually after you’ve sent it off to the hiring committee or client or professor.) A misplaced comma, an embarrassing spelling faux pas (wait, did I spell that right?), or worse… These are mistakes we would have spotted in a heartbeat in anyone else’s writing except, for some reason, our own.

The frustration!

When I first started working as a freelance editor, part of me hoped this would magically change. I imagined that, over time, I’d get so good at editing that I’d simply stop making mistakes. Or at least stop making so blasted many of them.

This had less to do with an inflated view of my abilities and more to do with the fact that I find it extremely difficult to give myself permission to screw up, grammatically or otherwise.

Well, I have news: I still make mistakes when I write. What’s more: I still make mistakes when I edit what I write.

(Anecdotal) studies show that this tendency will most likely never end, no matter how long I hang my shingle out as an editor. I have friends and colleagues who have been in the biz much longer than I have. They report staggeringly consistent findings: despite being editors, they too, have managed to retain the quality of being actual human beings, and are thus still prone to mistakes.

I’m reminded of this whenever I read Boldfacethe official blog for the local branch of our national editor’s association (actually, it should be “editors’ association” but I’m leaving the original error in there to affirm the message of this post! Feel free to send me hate mail about it–I’m cringing too.) Anyway. Nearly every post on Boldface concludes with a tiny byline: “This article was copy edited by…” And the person that follows is always different than the author of the post–even if the original author is, by trade, a copy editor.


Because we are most blind to our own mistakes, no matter who we are or what hat we wear in our professional lives. Part of this, I’m convinced, is a defense mechanism. I spend more time with myself than with any other person, which means if I were totally aware of my own mistakes, life would probably be miserable. Instead, our minds have learned to filter out a lot of our mistakes in order to function.

The downside is, well, even when we want to see our mistakes, sometimes we can’t. And others can.

It’s easy to get bent out of shape by this embarrassing reality.

But I think we can also choose to see it as something that deepens our communities and relationships. I need others to help me put my best self out there, whether that means streamlining my verbiage in an important business letter, or correcting a syntax error on my website, or calling me out when I say something rude, or reminding me to stop being so hard on myself all the time.

I need others to help me with this, and they need me, and our lives are made richer by that mutuality.

And although I used to harbor secret fantasies of being a perfect writer/ editor/ grammatician, making mistakes in my own writing actually makes me a better editor of others’ work. It keeps me from being some high and lofty goddess of grammar, who issues lightning bolts after every run-on sentence. Like other editors I’m acquainted with, I know first-hand what it’s like to struggle and wrestle with chronic writing imperfections. I know from the ease with which mistakes happen on the page, and how important an impartial set of eyes is. And I do the best job I can so my clients can feel confident in their–and my–work.

Making errors, becoming aware of them, revising, self-editing, and all the frustrations that writing entails–these things help me hone important skills over a whole lifetime.

All of that being said… Although we can never get to a place of total perfection, it is possible to reduce the number of mistakes we make in writing or train our eyes to catch more of our own errors before handing our work off to others.

Next week, I’ll highlight a few of these tricks to illuminate mistakes that often seem invisible at first glance.

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