Identifying your struggles or bad habits can help you to find mistakes in your writing

Sometimes it’s hard if you’ve been working on a document for several days or even weeks. I’m thinking of things like a presentation, a report, or even one of my books.
You’ve probably read it several times, rewritten sentences, added things, taken things out. You know the material really well, but that can work against you because you don’t see the errors.

Sometimes, if you’re writing in another language, it’s a bit harder. Reading the text aloud may help you to spot errors, but you might not necessarily know what doesn’t sound right.

There are general tips, such as “read through your work thoroughly”, “use a spell checking tool”, or “ask someone else to have a look at it for you”. These are all good, and depending on how important the document is, you might want to do one or all of them, but there’s something else that you can do too.

You know yourself and the kind of things that you find more difficult. This can be in your own language or in another language. Everyone struggles with different things. If you know what kind of things tend to trip you up, you can pay special attention to them when you’re checking.

Of course the ideal situation would be to learn to stop making the mistake altogether, but we all have little weaknesses, or things that don’t come as naturally to us. So if you can be aware what they are, it’s easier to hunt them out and pay special attention to them when checking your work.

When I’m writing documents, formatting is my least favourite thing. It isn’t a language issue, and it has something to do with my visual impairment. Things just don’t stand out to me as wrong in the same way that they would to a fully sighted person who could automatically see that something is in the wrong font, size, or colour, or that there is extra space somewhere.

If it’s a really important document, I just ask someone to check it, in the same way that I check other people’s work for grammar or spelling.

But you can’t do that all of the time. I started thinking about this post when I was writing a message to a friend at the weekend. Generally my spelling is pretty good, but I know that double letters catch me out. Sometimes I end up looking words up just to be sure if it’s a double or a single letter. I’d rather be sure than make a mistake. Why do we have two “B”s in rabbits, but only one in habits? The beginning of “erase” and “erratic” sounds the same, but one has two “R”s and the other doesn’t.

If I’m typing quickly, I sometimes end up with missing spaces between words or at the end of a sentence.
When I’m writing German, I double check my adjective endings, because they often catch me out. I know how to do them. I learned it at school. But I know I overlook problems with them, whereas there are other types of errors that I would catch straight away. Maybe I’ll do it perfectly one day, but for now, it pays to double check them.

Other people will have other things that they need to check, and some of them apply as much to native speakers as they do to learners. Here are some examples:

  • Spelling – spell checkers are great, but they don’t catch everything, especially if the word that you wrote by mistake is a real word.
  • Punctuation – are you confident about how to use the apostrophe? Some of my students seem to hate commas and never put them in. Have you closed all of your brackets and speech marks?
  • Structure – do your thoughts jump from one thing to another, or is there a clear structure to your document? Can another person follow what you were thinking without getting confused?
  • Use of tenses – this covers a lot of things, but if you’re learning English and your native language prefers a different tense in a specific situation, it’s easy to translate word for word into English, and then find that you’ve ended up using the wrong tense.
  • Very long sentences – nobody wants to write in really short sentences all the time, but sometimes in an effort to sound educated, some of my students produce sentences that are way too long and incredibly difficult to read. If someone has to read your sentence three times before they understand it, they’ll have an opinion about you, but it won’t be how educated you are. They’ll just be annoyed by your overly complicated text!
  • Run-on sentences – I’ll maybe do a post about these at some point, but they’re basically sentences sandwiched together by a comma, whereas they should be two separate sentences, or one sentence, but with a joining word between the two parts.
  • Words that are often confused – sometimes because the words sound similar, sometimes because it’s a related word, but not exactly the one you need.
  • Avoid double negatives – I didn’t see nobody and I haven’t been nowhere.
  • Starting by talking about course participants, then changing to “you”, then going back to course participants. It looks untidy.
  • Missing words – it’s easy to do this, because sometimes you even think you see the words or letters that are missing when you’re reading the text quickly. Sometimes reading it aloud slowly, word for word, will help you to spot these, especially if you know it’s something you’re likely to do when typing quickly.

Those are just ten things, and of course there are more. Most people won’t do all 10 of them, but one or two might sound familiar to you. If that’s the case, take a couple more minutes to look out for that particular type of error next time you check through your work, and it will help you to catch those small errors that can take people’s attention away from what you really wanted to say.

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Kirsty working with students