Proofing Copy

Image by Terry Freedman via Flickr

I swear I learned a concept in high school psychology called “spatial filling.” I can’t find it on the Internet (or at least not in the way I thought I knew it), but here’s how I recall it.

Spatial filling is the tendency for our mind to fill in missing details that we expect to be there. It’s what may cause you to step into an open manhole, for instance. Nobody expects the cover to be missing.

I’m experiencing that now in proofing the book. I’m not finding any misspelled words. Spellcheck pretty much takes care of that (though you have to watch out for homonyms, of course — there/their, etc.).

What I am finding are missing words in far too many places. Usually they’re short words like “to” or “for” or “it.” And usually they’re in midst of other short words. Or where similar words are present (“our” after “are,” for example).

It’s easy to read through a sentence a dozen times, as I’ve done, and never notice a word is missing. And Microsoft Word’s grammar check is of no help. It puts a green squiggly line under my sentence fragments and when I deliberately choose to use passive voice, but it doesn’t catch the fact that these here are not sentences without the missing words?

“I think one of the things that trips people up is that we are [our] own worst critics.”

“And just try putting your copy away and not looking at [it] for a few weeks.”

“Or at least those of [us] who spent too many hours watching TV in our parents’ basement.”


So that, I think, is spatial filling. We’ve got the sense of the sentence and completely overlook the fact that a key word is missing. In our minds, we actually hear the missing word.

Two things can be done to combat it. First, at this stage I always print the document and review it in hard copy. For some reason, you can look at something a dozen times on a screen and never see what you see on paper. Second, reading aloud really helps. It forces you to focus on each word, and only the words that are there.

Nevertheless, I shudder to think what I may yet miss. It seems unlikely I’ve caught the only typos.