Internet trends have their distinct waves. In the first wave, the early discoverers are excited about their discovery. In the second, those who weren’t part of the discovery (i.e., weren’t there first) express “What’s the big deal?” disinterest. In the third, we get meme fatigue, with a general theme of “We’re still talking about this?” and “Shut up already!” And finally, overlaying the other three, there’s the self-analysis. In case it isn’t obvious, that’s what this entire paragraph has been.
If you read Facebook, Twitter, or any other sufficiently populated social media site, you’ll have been slammed by a 48-hour dress-a-thon by this time. The fad has faded, I realize, but the self-analysis wave can keep it going long past its prime. I have no guilt about being part of that.
I enjoyed every wave of the poorly lit photo of The Dress. I liked seeing the variety of reactions. I wrote a trivia question for my online trivia game about it (“What pair of colors is the dress?”) and accepted multiple correct answers. It was refreshing for the internet to be arguing about something frivolous for a short time instead of hotbutton topics like religion, politics, and the serial comma. I’ve especially enjoyed the serious articles about visual perception that have come out of the frivolity, though.
This Wired piece explained it in words I understood, or at least thought I understood. This is what I got from it: the difference in perception is related to why we can see the same object at different times of day (midday versus just before dark, for instance) and can still tell what color it is. But this dress picture doesn’t give us enough of that information, so the brain decides in a split-split-second how to understand this color and then sends the color info to us. Once it’s there, few of us can see it another way (though a few people say they see it changing, and I’ve seen some people say they saw it gold and white at first, but once they started seeing it blue and black, they couldn’t switch their brains back).
If I understand this explanation correctly, then it strikes me as being a lot like what happens when you try to proofread or edit your own writing. Wired has something to say about that, too. When the brain is performing “high level tasks,” we learn, it “generalizes simple, component parts . . . so it can focus on more complex tasks.” Your mind isn’t fussing with the small stuff, like punctuation, but grinding out brilliant ideas. “When we’re proof reading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent.” Substance-wise, that means that you can’t see as well as an editor might when you’re trying to get from point A to point C and totally offroading around point B.
Of course, these aren’t totally analogous with one another. Chances are, if you point out a typo to someone, they’re not going to go, “I still don’t see it.” And instead of a split between people who see or don’t see it, it’s likely the only person who has difficulty is the one who wrote it. The similarity is in the brain process. In Dress Perception as well as trying to catch errors in one’s own writing, Mr. or Ms. Brain is shelving pieces of information that it thinks you no longer need to pay attention to so you can continue processing in different ways, such as deciding how to make fun of that person who sees blue and black. Or the person who typed “the penis” instead of “the pen is.”*
Failing to notice one’s own mistakes like that can be humbling, especially for an editor or proofreader. I proofread my own material several times before posting it, but naturally, mistakes still occasionally make it through. “Even proofreaders need proofreaders,” I quip when it happens. If it happens to us, it will happen to anyone else, and there’s no shame in it. Well, maybe a little. But it’s the kind of shame we can hopefully laugh at.
One recent client originally hired me to translate his book from British English into American English. I was only sentences into the first paragraph when I concluded it needed much heavier copyediting than that. I prepared two editing samples, comparing what the edit would look like if I did only what I was hired to do with what it looked like after a full copyedit. After seeing the difference, he agreed, and we renegotiated the job terms. He was too close to the material to see how much work it needed, whereas it was evident to a new reader right away.
I did quite a bit of work on that book. I reworded sentences and paragraphs that read as though they were direct translations from his first language. I finessed a repeating metaphor that ran as a thread through the book so that it would be illustrative instead of confusing. When a phrase appeared frequently—something that is not technically incorrect in English but is seldom used by native speakers—I revised it to the more common English construction. I flagged and fixed idioms that didn’t translate well and uses of biased language. In my mind, I took a book that was virtually unreadable and made it as good as I could make it.
The issue of perception reemerged at the end of the job, when he gave me feedback on my work. He was mostly positive, but it became clear that what he thought I’d helped the most with was “grammar.” It’s possible that he was using “grammar” as shorthand for the much wider range of issues I’d addressed, but I think it’s more likely that, as at the beginning of the project, he didn’t perceive what was truly wrong with the original draft. He was having trouble seeing that basic problems in communication existed.
Certainly, some of that might have been due to the language barrier, but his command of English was strong (though probably stronger for conversational purposes than for composing general nonfiction). However, it is also an exaggerated instance of something that happens on a much smaller scale with most writing before it goes to an editor (even writing by editors): that we do have trouble perceiving our own writing limitations. An outside reader might of course have opinions to contribute, but it also takes place on the more basic level of comprehension.
Never underestimate what an editor can do for your work. If you’re seeing gold and white, and she’s seeing blue and black, then together you can create a nuanced, complex piece of work.
* This happened in my ninth grade science class, only it happened on the dry erase board. Mrs. Smith wrote “the pen is [something or other]” on the board and couldn’t figure out why the class full of 14-year-olds snickered and snickered until the end of the period. She looked at it, over and over, but never seemed to see what we saw, which made it that much more hilarious.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.