A=Always Read Backwards (Feb 2)

Whether on page or pavement, a backwards glance can prevent errors // Shutterstock


To improve your writing, read your work backwards.

This is an editing technique that forces you to look at your words more carefully. You will see flaws you missed before.


Because when you read the normal way, front to back, your brain races ahead of your eye. It sees what it expects to see. It overlooks errors in order to serve the greater goal of grasping meaning.

You need to trick your brain to slow it down. Reading backwards does this. You look at your text more critically once you escape the slipstream of its sentences. This is especially handy for people who are not native speakers of English; it slows the game down, which improves one’s sense of control over the text.

This technique is very useful for spotting doubled words (the the) and typos. It will find things that spellcheck (and writing apps) miss. Lawyers use this technique when going over legal documents.

Things you missed while reading forward will jump out when read backward. It’s like you’re sneaking up on them. Go backwards not word by word but in bursts of five or six words. 

The larger question is how the brain processes written words. In 2003 there was an item making the rounds, doubtless by email back then, that said:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Matt Davis, a Cambridge University brain scientist who studies reading comprehension, later wrote that the above argument was only partly true. Prof. Davis noted that according to research by psycholinguists, jumbled letters slow down your reading time by 11 per cent. He said the jumble-letters experiment above appeared to have begun with Graham Rawlinson, who used it in his PhD thesis at Nottingham University and found that “randomising letters in the middle of words had little or no effect on the ability of skilled readers to understand the text”.

Davis pointed out that the text of the 2003 email often transposed adjacent letters rather than truly randomising them (eg, it uses “istlef” rather than, say, “ieltsf”; and “Uinervtisy” rather than, “Usritneivy”). A variant on this is that according to one model of how we read, our eyes split the job in half — left eye takes the first half, right eye takes the secnod half — and the brain then knits them together. The 2003 email tends to leave letters in the half of the word to which they belong, so again, not random.

LEARN: Read Matt Davis’s paper at mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/people/matt.davis/cmabridge/

USE: There’s a typo near the end of this text. If you missed it, read backwards. Also try reading a page of your recent writing backwards, and write down what you notice.


Published by robanderik

We are long-time writers and editors, now living in the Middle East. Our idea is to create a series of tips to help others improve their writing and editing skills. Think of it as a lesson plan for ESL learners that combines the practical with the aspirational.

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