The Invisible Gorilla

I recently completed editing an academic textbook. This was a heavy copy edit, as well as reference checking and formatting. I made suggestions for the structure, requested some clarifications, proposed a few transition sentences, and even fixed spelling here and there.  I was happy with the work, and so was the client.

Having a little time on my hands, I drafted an academic article in my field, and asked my former client to take a look at it for me. They made suggestions for the structure, requested some clarifications, proposed a few transition sentences, and even fixed spelling here and there. My initial reaction was to think, how could I have missed these things?

I blame the invisible gorilla (read about it here). Because of how our eyes and our brains work, we often don’t see what we are not looking for. This can have fatal consequences for activities such as driving. You might hear someone say, after a collision, “he came out of nowhere” or “I never saw him.” Good driving means watching for the unexpected. The stakes are lower when you are writing, but the same problem exists.

As an author, you may overlook errors because you are not looking for them. You are concentrating on putting your thoughts on paper, or perhaps imagining the fame and fortune that await, once your masterpiece is published. (That’s how I overcome procrastination, and it’s helped get me published a few times, though fame and fortune still elude me.) It’s hard for an author to switch roles and be the editor of their own work. It can help to take a few days, and work on other things, but nothing beats a second set of eyes.

They say that a person who is their own lawyer has a fool for a client (and they’ve been saying it since at least 1809). That’s not a comment on the skill of the lawyer, but a reminder that one person should not take on two roles. No matter how good a writer you are, the editor should be someone else who can see the gorillas you miss.

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