Grammar Girl’s tips for effective proofreading

Four keys to avoiding typos for meticulous editors.

From ‘Grammar Girl,’ some essentials for meticulous editors

Editor’s note: Mignon Fogarty is the host of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

Before I get to the proofreading tips, I have to confess that I feel like a fraud, because I make as many errors as everyone else, and sometimes typos slip through. I try so hard, but typos seem to evade me with impunity. As my father would say, “If you miss one typo, all the others will know,” implying that I will forever be an easy mark for sneaky, calculating typos that are out to get me.

So, given my long history with typos, it has become my belief that it’s nearly impossible for someone to accurately proofread their own writing and be consistently successful. Think about it: If I produce 1,000 words a day and I let one typo slip by every week, that’s actually a 99.986 percent success rate. If you think about it in terms of letters, rather than words, since most typos happen at the level of letters, that one typo a week equates to about a 99.997 percent success rate.

I know that’s a silly example because for native English speakers every letter isn’t a typo waiting to happen, and typos are bad and can get you in a lot of trouble. Nevertheless, my point is that even though you should do your very best to catch typos, I also think it’s important not to beat yourself up too badly when they happen and to realize that human error is inevitable.

The key to avoiding typos is to have someone else proofread your copy, and this relates to another question I’ve been asked: whether I could discuss the poor state of writing on the Internet.

In addition to the fact that most people don’t get a good grammar education, I believe a significant reason you see so many typos and errors on Web pages is that most Web copy never gets reviewed by anyone but the writer before it goes live. By contrast, copy that you see in newspapers and magazines (in addition to being written by professional writers) goes through an extensive editing process.

After a writer turns in a story, it’s usually reviewed by multiple editors, including the department editor who assigned it, a senior editor, and a copy editor. Of course, these editors all have more training in grammar and writing than the average person writing a blog, and even if you consider text on a commercial Web site, in my experience, these companies tend to run lean editorial departments and may have only one editor looking at copy before it goes live.

So my primary advice on avoiding typos is to have someone else proofread your work. On the other hand, sometimes that isn’t possible for things like e-mail or rushed projects, so here are four proofreading tips I’ve collected over the years.

1) Read your work backward, starting with the last sentence and working your way in reverse to the beginning. Supposedly, this works better than reading through from the beginning because your brain knows what you meant to write, so you tend to skip over errors when you’re reading forward.

2) Read your work out loud. This forces you to read each word individually and increases the odds that you’ll find a typo. This works quite well for me, and most of the typos that make it into my podcast transcripts seem to be things I wouldn’t catch by reading aloud, such as misplaced commas.

3) Always proofread a printed version of your work. I don’t know why, but if I try to proofread on a computer monitor, I always miss more errors than if I print out a copy and go over it on paper.

4) Give yourself some time. If possible, let your work sit for a while before you proofread it. It seems to me that if you are able to clear your mind and approach the writing from a fresh perspective, then your brain is more able to focus on the actual words, rather than seeing the words you think you wrote.

That’s all on proofreading. If anyone has other proofreading tips, please post them in the comments section. I can always use more proofreading tips, and I’m sure everyone else would appreciate it, too!

Reprinted by arrangement with Quick and Dirty Tips, a division of Macmillan Holdings, LLC.

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