10 techniques for improving your proofreading

Having another set of eyes comb your text for errors and ambiguities is ideal, but if you must check your own writing, here are tested tactics for ferreting out typos and other gaffes.

Do you clean your own gutters?

How about changing the oil in your own car, or baking every family member’s birthday cake from scratch?

You probably don’t do many, if any, of those things—and you shouldn’t proofread your own writing, either.

Proofreading is a specialized job requiring someone with talent and training. I’m not a natural proofreader myself, but I know how to hire excellent ones. They should cost about $40 per hour.

If I must proofread, I do it using the following tricks. You can use them, too:

1. Let time pass after you finish writing/editing and before you start proofreading. We all make unconscious mistakes, and they are hard to spot because our brains “fill in” the correct word. You may have meant to write trickier, but somehow it came out as tricker. The trouble is, if you’re familiar with the story, your eye will glide right past the error. If you take a break, however, you’re far more likely to catch the mistake.

2. Print out your text, and proofread on paper. In part because using a computer shines light into our eyes, we all read material on screen much more quickly and less carefully than we do in print. When possible, print out your work before proofing it.

3. If there is some reason that prevents you from printing, use a distinctive typeface and dramatically increase the point size before proofing . When I am forced to proof on screen, I like to use Papyrus or Candara 18 point; that makes it easier to spot errors.


4. Pay particular attention to names (people, books, movies, songs), addresses, titles and dates. Be aware that the single most common mistake is to mismatch days with dates—for example, writing Monday, April 24, when in fact it is Tuesday, April 24.

5. Check what I call the “big, obvious, yet somehow invisible” stuff. By this, I mean logos, company names and extra-large headlines. Curiously, the bigger the type, the more likely you are to miss a typo.

6. Start at the end. Professional proofreaders often read the text backward at least once. That doesn’t mean they read the words backward. They read the last sentence (or paragraph) first, then the penultimate sentence, then the third-to-last sentence—working their way back to the beginning. This forces them to read each passage in isolation, breaking the familiarity with the piece that might cause them to overlook errors.

7. Put a ruler or sheet of paper underneath each line as you read the text. This forces you to work much more slowly and stops your eye from jumping ahead.

8. Consider what you might have left out. For instance, if the piece requires an RSVP, it needs a phone number or email address to which the recipient can respond. It should also have the date of the event and an address.

9. Make a list of your own common spelling or grammar errors and check for those specifically. Do you mix up “affect” and “effect” for example?

10. Read your work aloud at least once. You’ll catch a lot more errors this way.

Proofreading thoroughly is a courtesy to your readers and a nice touch for your editors or your clients.

A version of this post first appeared on Publication Coach


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