Whether you have been editing for years or are a newbie, the following tips can improve your skills.
1. Always double-space your documents. It makes reading and proofreading easier because you can write above and below the sentences.
2. Never rely on screen reading and software-assisted grammar checkers to proofread or copyedit your documents. Remember that grammar and spell checkers don’t catch homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings: e.g., hear and here) or words with letters that typists frequently transpose, such as form and from.
For error-free results use electronic tools and print a hard copy of your document—no matter how many pages. To save money, recycle your printer paper by turning over the sheets and reusing them for subsequent revisions. Don’t scrimp by skipping this step.
3. Get some rest. Unless you are a teacher or professional accustomed to grading or proofreading, chances are you’ll work best after a good night’s rest or when you’ve given your eyes and mind a break from the document. In a perfect world this respite can last a day to several weeks. The author’s eyes and mind often fill in words that are not on the page because of familiarity with the work. You know what you’re saying, but it’s easy to miss obvious breaks in logic or continuity unless you take a rest. Sometimes logic breaks are illuminated during the proofreading phase as you encounter an awkward phrase or clumsy usage.
4. Use a red pen or one that isn’t close in color to the text for marking up errors. Changes should be clearly written and easy to understand. Professional proofreader’s marks can be found online, or you can simply circle the error and write the correction next to it or above it.
5. Read aloud as you follow along with a red pen. Or do a separate reading out loud after you read silently with the pen. Say each word slowly and carefully, and be sure to read the punctuation marks, too. Although reading aloud may seem tedious, it’s a great way to catch mistakes and missing words that the eye glosses over. It also gives you the opportunity to reconsider poor or lumbering word choices. If you’re an author, it’s great practice for when you’ll be reading in front of audiences.
6. Be sure to check and double-check proper nouns for capitalization and spelling. Keep a list of proper names, places and dates that you’ve already fact-checked so you don’t have to repeat this process each time you proofread.
7. Take a break between steps.
8. Total any numbers, equations or calculations to make sure they work. Make sure graphics are correctly oriented and that captions match the images they tag.
9. Never take spelling for granted. Check with at least two dictionary sources in print or online for the correct spelling and correct part of speech. There are many websites with tips on the proper usage of verbs like lay and lie. When in doubt, an easy cheat is to check The New York Times and one other daily newspaper or magazine. Pay special attention to foreign words and the correct use of hyphenation.
10. Beware of mixing up possessives and contractions. Even if you know the difference between it’s (the contraction) and its (possessive), your fingers may not. Using the “Find” function of your word processor and run a search just for apostrophe marks to help locate and catch errors.
11. Besides punctuation mistakes, take time to review for consistent use of verb tenses, variety in verb choices, and use of the active voice by removing verbs with the -ing ending. An easy trick for ferreting out -ing verbs is the “Find” feature with just the letters “ing” typed in the search field. Many writers advocate the “Find” feature to mitigate the use of -ly adverbs, as well as to tamp down pet words and phrases.
12. In addition to the document text, be sure to proofread all headers, footers, footnotes and other annotations for spelling and style format errors.
13. Once you’ve fixed an error, overwrite the area on the hard copy with a highlighter to indicate it’s complete. Or come up with your own method for indicating that you’ve fixed the error.
14. Longer works such as novels have special considerations when proofreading or copyediting, as you’ll need to perform multiple selective read-throughs and outlines. Very often authors and book editors will keep separate document files containing crucial and accurate information such as the characters’ proper names, dates, timelines and supporting research to avoid making mistakes in continuity and logic.
15. Take a break between steps.
16. Have one last glance to make sure all your end punctuation is included, questions end with a question mark, and pieces of dialogue begin and end with quotation marks.
Tricks and cautions for computer screen reading and format conversions
The remaining functions and techniques will help improve your chances of producing an error-free document. Run your spelling checker and grammar checker, and then check the checkers.
17. When proofreading by screen reading you’ll want to turn on the show/hide feature which is indicated in the toolbar by a paragraph mark. This tool will highlight extra spaces between words and paragraphs that need to be removed or made consistent. Most documents use only one space after periods.
18. Many publishers and educators require that the author follow specific stylebook guidelines that vary depending on whether the writing is commercial or academic. Be sure to follow those guidelines, or you risk rejection.
19. If your document will be converted from Microsoft Word to another publishing platform (such as e-books) you should proofread it again before it’s published. Always ask to reread it after someone else modifies the work for reproduction to another platform if you can.
20. And finally… We know you love your mom, wife, husband or boyfriend, but don’t trust any of them to correct your documents.
Tina Koenig is the founder of the internet’s first press release distribution agency at XpressPress.com. She is also an author, editor and publicist who blogs occasionally at PR-Pi.com, where this article originally ran. This post first appeared on Ragan.com in July 2011.