Self-Editing: Know Your Mistakes

There are mistakes I can’t help but make. I have this bad habit of typing the same error over and over again, until it’s a Groundhog Day of poor spelling. Perhaps it’s a good thing that I know what specific words, or grammar rules, get me into trouble. But it’s a long slow process to fix errors on my own, without relying on spellcheck or other editors to do it for me.

It took me 3 years to spell ‘judgment’ correctly. It wasn’t a word I typed much in my daily life, it wasn’t even a word I thought about. So it was especially embarrassing when I found out, at my law office, that it was a word that I consistently spelled incorrectly, always adding an extra ‘e’. Worse, it wasn’t even technically a spelling mistake! It’s an accepted spelling of the word but  it wasn’t accepted practice at my work.

At my old firm, we entered lawyer dockets (which are a daily breakdowns of time spent on file-work) into an old accounting system from the 80s. How did I know it was from the 80s? There was acid green font on black background and the letters were squared and pixelated. You could only Tab from field to field. Judging by the reactions of the accounting staff during my training, pressing enter was likely to cause the apocalypse. The biggest challenge was if you completed a docket, there was no way to edit it. Errors could only fixed at the end of the month, when the prebills were sent out to the lawyers and then combed for mistakes.

So every week at work I would enter dockets, trying to be both careful and quick. The problem was that, not only is it it a monotonous job, lawyers use initialisms instead of writing out full phrases. Each lawyer has their own shorthand. Eventually you learn the standard phrases that are used by lawyers in order to save time, in fact most times it’s the same 5 or 6 phrases reused over and over again. Ideally this repetition made it easier, since you could just turn off your brain and type. The problem was once you made a mistake you were doomed to repeat it.  We had one phrase that would pop up every week: “sent email to client about judgment”. Without fail, I would have a spelling mistake. That extra ‘e’ always slipped into the word ‘judgment’ unnoticed. I couldn’t even see the mistake anymore. Judgement. Judgement. Judgement. Judge-ment.

It’s a small error, one easily corrected in Word after-the-fact, but it’s one that I would make without fail. It took years before I consistently spelled it correctly. We’ve moved onto to newer and shinier accounting software, one that actually spellchecks, but I’ve become wary of my own abilities. I’ve learned to embrace my paranoia, because there are times when I’m typing quickly and I accidentally substitute words that should never be substituted. Sometimes these words are easily mixed up:

compliant complaint

definitely defiantly

Then there are the other words, the ones that are soo close on the keyboard, that you may not even notice the mistake:

whole ≠ whore

Yes, I’ve mentioned this mistake before. But imagine the panic of realizing you’ve typed the word ‘whore’ instead of the benign ‘whole’. Trust me, that’s not a mistake you want your bosses to remember.

We rely too much on that red wavy line underneath our words. It tells us that we’ve made a mistake so we don’t focus on the other words in the document. You stop reading and just scan from red wiggle to red wiggle. If you know your predisposition toward certain errors it can help you self-edit in the future. You can’t, and shouldn’t, rely on a machine to do your editing for you. There’s been tons of articles about the evils of spellcheck. I don’t want to be part of that chorus. Writers, of any type, need to be aware of their words and their own errors. It took me 3 years to identify and rectify one spelling mistake. But doing so, made me much more aware of my own blunders.


  • For extra reading: Daily Writing Tips, Judgement or Judgment? (for the record, I forced myself to add the extra ‘e’. Progress!)