Spelling Errors in Titles and Headings
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
Last year I was editing a report for a major international consulting organization. There were several co-authors, and the review process involved several rounds of evaluations by external subject matter experts. The document came to me after this. A few days after beginning work on this massive report, I made a discovery that stunned me. There was a spelling mistake in the title of the report! I had, of course, read the title more than once while working on the document, but had not spotted the error earlier — nor had the authors of the report or the external subject matter experts. It had slipped past all of them. How could this have happened?
Before pondering this question, consider an even more fundamental question. How did the error arise in the first place? Microsoft Word has an efficient spellchecker, and given that most documents are first created in Word these days, haven't spelling errors become extinct? Yes, spelling errors must have definitely sharply dropped compared to the pre–word processor days (surely someone must have produced a study on this?), but they are still around.
One explanation for the error in my document is that the spellchecker was not active when the offending word was typed. It's possible to switch off Word's spellchecker, and some authors do this deliberately, probably to get rid of the distracting squiggly red underlines in scientific documents. In medical books, for example, the number of squiggly red underlines can get out of hand. Those red lines can interfere with the reading/writing experience, so I can understand why some authors deactivate the spellchecker. I have a sneaking suspicion that some authors deactivate the spellchecker because they believe they have spellchecked the document thoroughly, and they don't trust anyone else to make further changes to the spelling. I, on the other hand, need to see those red lines, and over the years seem to have developed immunity to them. They don't disturb my reading.
If there are too many spelling errors in the document, Word will throw its hands up and complain that there are too many of them. It will then stop displaying them. Yes, the red squiggly underlines will vanish. According to this interesting article by Allen Wyatt (see https://wordribbon.tips.net/T013498_Forcing_Word_to_Display_Spelling_and_Grammar_Errors.html), this error message is displayed by Word when the error count exceeds 1400. He even gives a simple macro that will display how many spelling errors a document has which I'm enjoying playing around with.
Word spellchecking settings can change unpredictably, so the spellchecker may have turned off by itself. If I don't see red squiggly lines in a new document I have opened, I know that the spellchecker may be inactive. I immediately create a spelling error by appending a letter to a word. If it gets underlined, I know all is well. If not, it's troubleshooting time. I first check that the spellchecker has not been switched off.
If the spellchecker is on and the red squiggly lines do not appear, I know I'm in trouble. I'll have to drop everything and somehow get spellcheck working (Googling will turn up troubleshooting steps). Troubleshooting a temperamental spellchecker is not easy. Recently my spellchecker stopped working in the comments. The recommended solutions did not fix the problem, and so I had to export the comments and spellcheck them separately. Mysteriously, for no apparent reason, the spellchecker began working a couple of weeks later.
So, to return to the question I posed at the beginning, the spelling error in the title may have slipped through because the spellchecker was off when the word was typed. However, this does not explain why the co-authors and external reviewers did not spot the error.
The authors of my report had used the Word Art feature to create the title. Word Art is not spellchecked by Word. That explains why nobody spotted the error; even I took a few days to notice it, because I didn't see the red squiggly line. If you intend to use Word Art, make sure that you spellcheck the text first, before converting it into Word Art.
Even this sensible precaution, however, may not protect you from disaster. One day you may glance at your Word Art and say, "Wait! Isn't this better?", and change a couple of words. You may have just inadvertently introduced a spelling error Revisions to Word Art should also first be spellchecked, and then only transferred to Word Art. That's not easy to enforce, human nature being what it is. I do not use Word Art myself, but if I did, I'd maintain a copy of the Word Art, a spell-checkable mirror image, as plain text in the main document, getting rid of it just before document finalization. Any changes to Word Art would be made to the mirror image first, which would be spellchecked.
Not only is the text in Word Art not spellchecked, it also does not contribute to Word's word count. Authors struggling to meet document word count limits sometimes use Word Art to smuggle in text without breaching the limit.
Word Art apart, there is another reason why errors in titles may be overlooked: psychology. Authors and editors get sucked into the body of the document, and once immersed in the flow of one sentence after the other, pay only cursory attention to titles and headings. It has happened to me. Titles and headings can often seem like speed bumps that must be left behind in one's wake as quickly as possible.
Is there a way to give titles and headings their due? I know of only one way. If the document's headings have been styled as Word headings, after the editing is over, I examine the headings in Outline View.
Here, I see all the headings in one place, ordered hierarchically. Mistakes are easily spotted. Sometimes the numbering is wrong. Some headings might be in title case and others in sentence case. The hierarchy might be flawed: a heading might have to be demoted or promoted. Importantly, the spellchecker does work in Outline View. This quality time spent with headings in Outline View is necessary.
If the document's headings have not been styled as Word headings, I ought to apply them myself (perhaps in a copy of the document), but I'm afraid that doesn't always happen, which is unpardonable. Headings and titles require a dedicated process: the Outline View check. It may take a little effort to set it up, but the payoff can be huge.
In fact, I'm now going to formalize a Post-Editing Process that will kick in after the main document body has been edited. It will consist of the following: (1) figure citation check, (2) table citation check, (3) reference citation check, (4) abbreviations check, and (5) title/headings check in Outline View. This has been an ad hoc process thus far; no longer! I have now formalized it, carved it in stone.