Why Can’t We See Our Own Mistakes?

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;” John Donne
     I’ve been in discussions with other authors about the frustrations we share when we think we have a “perfect” manuscript, then someone points out a missing word, or an extra word, or improper usage, and the mistake becomes a glaring beacon. Evident and obvious. “How could I have missed THAT when I read the manuscript about a million times, out loud, backwards, every which way but loose?”
     It boils down to the fact that we can’t always see own mistakes, a fact I have pondered off and on my entire adult life. What am I doing that others think is wrong? What am I saying that another finds insulting or offensive? I do not deliberately set out to offend anyone, but it happens from time to time.
     I consider it a sign of caring when someone points out an error I’ve made. Which brings me to the answer of why I think we can’t see our own mistakes: we need others. As John Donne so eloquently wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself.”
     How can we correct something we don’t know is wrong, or could be made better? We need others who are willing to point out things we’ve said or done incorrectly, or missed altogether. If we are insulated, others can’t help us.
     I am a person who wants the truth. When I ask for an honest opinion, I sincerely expect it. Even when the answer is, “Yes, that dress does make you look fat.” Or, “That’s not a very realistic scenario in your book.” I may feel a little put-out, but it enables me to look at things from a different perspective, and make effective changes.
     I strive to be kind to others and tend to make positive–rarely negative–comments. But, when it’s important to point out a needed correction, or someone asks for my candid opinion, I give it. People can accept or reject what I say.
     There are people who seem to thrive on pointing out others’ mistakes, or making hurtful comments that crush others. I consider that mean-spirited, perhaps born out of jealousy, or insecurity. Maybe those are the people who consider themselves islands, in and of themselves.
     But the rest of us can endeavor to be helpful with our corrections. As John Donne says, “because I am involved in mankind.” And we can be, too.


Filed under books, life, musings, writing

10 responses to “Why Can’t We See Our Own Mistakes?

  1. I’ve been involved with this discussion before, Christine, many times. I think the main reason we tend to miss many typos is that we’re so close to our work that our eyes tends to see what they want to see: miss a typo the first time and we’re likely to miss it again and again. I think it’s important we look at our work from different perspectives, whether on a monitor (even changing the font style) or a printed copy. Of course, as you point out, a second and third set of eyes (other readers) help, too.

  2. christinehusom

    That too, J.

  3. Sherrie Hansen

    Beautifully said, Chris. It reminds me of another quote – by C.S. Lewis: “It is no disparagement to the garden to say it will not fence and weed itself, nor prune its own fruit trees, nor roll and cut its own lawns…It will remain a garden only if someone does all these things to it…” We need each other! And I know from working with you that you catch many things in my work that I’ve missed – thank you once again!

  4. It’s not just that we’re too close to our work, it’s that we let our eyes skim (it’s almost impossible not to lose focus when you’ve read something a hundred times) and sometimes we get caught up in the story and forget we’re supposed to be checking every word. Sometimes less than stellar prose doesn’t show up unless we look at a small section rather than the whole. I posted an excerpt of Light Bringer on my blog the other day and was appalled to see three “open”s within four short paragraphs. Something like that tends to get lost in the entirety of the work, even when others read the book. Four (or five — I forget how many I had) editors missed it, and at least a couple of those editors are highly tuned to such echoes.

  5. For me, it’s because by the time it gets to an editing stage where my critical eye is so important, I’ve read each scene so many times that I’m reading what I think it says, not what it says.

  6. christinehusom

    Thanks, everyone, for sharing your observations and experiences. Love the CS Lewis quote, Sherrie. Someone just told me about a spot in my last book where I wrote then instead of than.

  7. As a person who has done a lot of proof-reading in the past, I can say that you definitely need another person or two or … We only see what we think we wrote. Nothing mind-boggling, I’m sure many of you have seen those e-mails going around with half the letters mixed up or missing and yet you can read it all. Well, it’s basically the same principle, you “see” what you thought you wrote, not what actually may have been typed.
    This can apply to typos, words with several spellings, or complete thoughts. Even a missed word can continue to be missed because your mind is filling in the blank. I know I do it all the time re-reading what I’ve written, but others will catch it.

  8. christinehusom

    That is a good example, Betty.

  9. Constructive Criticism is what people want/need. How can they get any better at what they’re trying to learn if their confidence is taken away by hurtful remarks? A good point.

  10. christinehusom

    Yes, Juliet, we all know those people in person, and online.

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