Typos and the art of not looking stupid

Avatar photo

Alan Black

Typos: every copywriter’s nightmare. You’ve stressed for hours over a piece, carefully crafting the tone of voice, giving a nod or two to the keywords, varying sentence structure, clipping your style into its most pristine rendition. You hand it over triumphantly. First feedback? Not, ‘This is beautiful’ but: ‘There’s a typo in the second sentence.’

There it is – clear as anything, and yet you checked it over two, three, ten times before passing it on. How could you possibly have missed it?

OK, so maybe these Bristol road painters didn’t have that luxury, but now the number 62 pulls up at a bup stop and we’ll bet they kicked themselves pretty hard that day.

A bus on a street in Bristol pulling away from a Bus Stop. Instead of saying Bus Stop on the road it says Bup Stop.

There’s a small consolation: turns out that not being able to spot your own typos is a brain thing (technical term). We’re programmed to mess it up. This Wired article explains why proofreading is so tough.

But it’s just a typo – what’s the big deal?

Typos are snags in the copy. They disrupt the flow of the words, like a nail sticking out of a plank of smooth wood or a pothole in the road. They distract the reader – because now they’re thinking ‘I wonder who edited this’ rather than ‘wow this sounds amazing’.

Most of all, they look sloppy. It says to the reader, I didn’t take the time to check this, so it’s probably not worth your time reading it. Like this howler from Reebok which, ironically, looks to have been rushed to print.

A poster on the tube that says. Not eveything needs to be done in a new york minute. Run Easy NY, in white writing on a dark blue background.

Typos are crafty, they hide in plain sight

They lurk in headlines and evade spell checkers. How bad can it be if you didn’t notice? Well, ‘pubic school’ is a terrifying example of what happens when the letter ‘L’ goes missing. They also hide in subtly incorrect phone numbers, link URLs and email addresses. Which could mean more than embarrassment – that’s lost business.

A poster on the tube that says. Not eveything needs to be done in a new york minute. Run Easy NY, in white writing on a dark blue background.

How to hunt and kill typos

Ideally, you’ll have a tried and tested copywriter or proofreader on-hand to do a full sweep for errors. But it’s not always the case, so here are a few tips on how to get rid of those pesky typos:

First, run a spell check – blindingly obvious, but make sure you do it. However, don’t trust the results completely, and be wary of Word’s idiosyncratic view of the world. It would have saved Reebok’s blushes, but waved ‘pubic school’ right on through.

Change the format – switch the font to something unusual. Courier is a safe bet. At the same time, bring the margins in and boost the text size to something Magoo-friendly, like 14pt. It’ll force you to slow down and see things differently. Suddenly, that missing word is screaming out to you.

Print it out – if you can catch all your typos by proofing on screen, great. But it’s harder to read copy on-screen. Much harder. Read what Scientific American’s report on screens versus paper has to say about it.

Check the obvious stuff first – dial the phone number, make sure the links resolve and double-check the email address. You’d be surprised how often nobody thinks to click the links before publishing.

Hear it aloud – find a quiet corner and read the copy out loud. One. Word. At. A. Time. This helps you spot any missing words or grammatical goofs. If your copy reads well out loud, it’ll read nicely inside someone’s head too. Even better, use Word’s read aloud to hear those rhythms in a robotic voice that exposes even the smallest gaffes.

Get rid of double spaces – on a PC, type ‘CRTL + H’ for search and replace. On a Mac, use ‘SHIFT + OPTION + H’. Then type two spaces in the ‘find’ field and one space in the ‘replace’ field. You’re welcome.

Check the ends of sentences and bullets – it’s common to see missing full stops at the ends of paragraphs. Are yours present and correct? Check the ends of bullet points too – but be wary of putting full stops at the ends of very short bullets. The simplest advice is to apply a rule consistently to every bullet in the same list.

Concentrate on names – of people, countries, brands… whatever. If you’re writing about burgers, is it MacDonald’s, McDonalds or something else? Powerpoint or PowerPoint? Does Lycra™ need a capital letter and a trademark symbol? These are important details.

Get the client’s name and product name right – this deserves a category of its own, because we see it so often. Vodaphone, anyone? Cathay Pacific even managed to get it wrong in a font the size of a plane. Literally.

A plane that says Cathay Paciic on the side. Major typo.

Of course, you also need to know your way around the nooks and crannies of language. For more info on sniffing out the root of the mistakes, listen to our podcast all about proofreading. And if you’re still not sure, call a professional proofreader. A word, incidentally, which Word doesn’t think exists.

Learn more on one of our copywriting courses.

Your inbox needs BlackMail

Get fortnightly tips, finds and insights from the world of words. Described as "beautiful and succinct". Shucks.