The Psychology of Error: Avoiding Negative Impressions


Posted August 27, 2020

My graduate mentor told me that there are things outside of our control when writing and doing academic work, and that is precisely why it is so important to pay special attention to the things that are in our control. This covers many aspects of work, but I want to talk about the importance of mechanics, including punctuation and grammar, and the negative impressions chronic problems in these areas can leave in the minds of your reviewers.

Of course, mechanics are not the most important components of writing; however, ideas, arguments, and research cannot be presented accurately and intelligibly without correct mechanics. Mechanics are not as important as ideas and arguments, but the effective presentation of ideas and arguments is dependent on correct mechanics.

You can always hire an editor to review your work after it’s complete. But until then, it’s important to still pay close attention to mechanics along the way. Presenting correct or nearly correct punctuation and grammar is largely within your control and can help facilitate the dissertation process. Here’s how.

Errors build up in the minds of readers (your reviewers) and begin to cast doubt on the content of your work, regardless of the actual quality of the content. In this psychology of error, small errors are like stains, and enough of them can lead to negative impressions about the whole project. Sometimes reviewers will get fed up with excessive errors and just stop reading, indicating that you should clean things up before they review the work again.

But what happens when they keep reading? Reviewers may mark all or some errors. But more importantly, they may begin to make judgments about the quality of your work in general, including content. So, it’s important to get the mechanics as correct as you can, which is largely within your control.

Let’s face it, no one expects you to know everything about punctuation, grammar, and mechanics. But what your reviewers do expect is that if you don’t know correct apostrophe use, for example, and that if you have a question as you’re writing or editing about it, that you look it up and get it right. There’s no excuse not to look up these rules anymore with all the information literally at our fingertips.

Also, chronic avoidable errors will reflect negatively on your work effort and your seriousness to the academic project. Your reviewers may assume you haven’t made the effort to make your work as presentable as you can.

The point is that we want to make good impressions in the minds of our readers, or at least avoid making negative impressions. In part, we do that by paying attention to things in our control and making the effort the ensure we avoid preventable errors. So, if you don’t know something: look it up! There’s no excuse not to.


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