The ability to proofread your own writing is an important skill for producing error-free work, which will mean your words are taken seriously whether in an email or an essay. Simple typing errors, especially those which can be mistaken for grammatical mistakes, such as typing “hear” for “here” can cause people reading your work to form a low opinion of your competence.
Proofreading is the methodical process of looking through your work to eliminate all spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and formatting issues. It requires patience and concentration and can take time to perfect, but with a little practice you’ll quickly learn what to look out for. An exceptional proofreader will adhere to the following guidelines:
- Be thorough
- Conduct multiple readings
- Don’t rely on spellchecker
- Know your most common errors
- Be willing to learn as you go
- Leave it overnight
1. Be thorough
The core principal of successful proofreading is to be completely focused, reading patiently through your document in order to be as thorough as possible. It’s therefore important to remove distractions from your workspace so that you are in a position to engage critically with your writing. Don’t listen to music, turn off your smartphone, close all the tabs on your laptop, and find a quiet place to concentrate fully on reading your work.
For longer or more important pieces, work with a printed document; as Wired points out, we tend to read words with more attention when they are printed on paper rather than on a screen. Double-space each line of text before printing to give you enough room to write corrections on the paper. Use a coloured pen to make your corrections stand out and tick them off with a different colour once you have made the correction.
2. Conduct multiple readings
It’s difficult to detect every type of error in one determined run-through of your text: you’ll overexert your brain, leading to missed mistakes. Instead, read through your document multiple times, looking out for one of the three main categories of error: incorrect spellings, poor grammar and inconsistent formatting.
- Spelling: The slowest read-through, you’ll focus on every word in every sentence, concentrating not only on spotting obvious mis-spellings, but also homophonic mistakes (‘whether’ or ‘weather’); misplaced apostrophes (‘its’ and ‘it’s’); and the correct capitalisation of proper nouns.
- Grammar: Focusing on sentence structure and punctuation, proofreading for grammatical errors ultimately aims to achieve a smooth, fluid rhythm to your work. A top tip here is to read the text aloud, which will demonstrate to you when a sentence isn’t well-formed grammatically. Sometimes your ear will pick up on mistakes your eyes have missed. Make sure every sentence ends with a full stop, and that you have the correct spacing after a punctuation mark.
- Formatting: On this read-through, check simple formatting features like the size, colour and type of your font; the use of headings, bullet points and paragraphs; and extra features like page numbers and footnotes. A consistent and clearly laid out document will be interpreted as professionalism by the reader. If you have indented certain paragraphs or used italics or bold font for emphasis make sure you have done so consistently.
- References, quotations and footnotes. Some academic institutions such as univiesities and academic journals have very precise rules about how you should refer to information which has previously been published elsewhere. Before you start writing you should make sure you know what these rules are. Now is the time to check that you have applied the rules accurately. Newspapers and periodicals too may have a “style guide”.
There’s a point at which your brain will tire of reading through your writing, resulting in missed mistakes, so remember to only proofread when you know you can concentrate.
3. Don’t rely on spellchecker
This is the number one tip professional proofreaders will hammer home to students: don’t rely on those red or green squiggly underlines. Spellcheckers and other language apps should always be seen as a helping hand, not something that does all your work for you. Here are some examples of errors that spellchecker fails to recognise:
- Homophones — words that sound the same but have different meanings, like ‘to’, ‘too’ and two’. The spellcheck software only sees a correctly spelt word, despite it being the wrong one. Autocorrect functions may correct a mis-typed word to the wrong homophone. Turn autocorrect off and make sure you approve spellchecker suggestions one by one before you proofread.
- Spliced words — when a space is inserted in the incorrect place, as in: ‘I object to this’ and ‘I object tot his’. Again, both statements are spelt correctly; one is obviously wrong.
- Repetitions — Especially of shorter common words such as ‘the the’, these are difficult to spot when quickly reading through your document. Spellchecker won’t help. These kind of errors often creep in if you have spent a long time editing your text and changing the order of words.
- Slang, jargon and dialect — Spellchecker isn’t always right, and sometimes autocorrects words that were in fact correct. This can happen to new words, technical jargon, and in regional differences such as the variations in British and American English e.g. ‘-ise’ and ‘-ize’
Experienced proofreaders know the shortcomings of spellchecking software and direct their attention to looking out for these specific types of errors when reading through their work. Spellchecker can actually create errors as well as failing to identify them; bear this in mind when proofreading your text.
4. Know your most common errors
While proofreading can throw up some weird and wonderful errors, there are many that occur consistently in writing. An understanding of where and when these take place will make your proofread faster, ensuring you’re equipped to spot and avoid regular traps.
Regular errors include mixing quotation marks (‘ ’ and “ ”) and the wrong use of words such as ‘you’re’ and ‘your’ or ‘there’ and ‘their’. You might always mistype ‘where’ for ‘were’, or fail to close brackets that you’ve opened; recognising your own frequent mistakes is all you need to do to treat those parts of your text with special significance, spotting when you’ve committed an error.
Some of these common mistakes can actually be searched for before proofreading, using the ‘find’ function (Control+F) in your word processor. A good use of this function is to find easy-to-miss errors. For example, if you’ve written an essay on government policies, it’s worth using the find function to search for ‘polices’ which looks almost identical to ‘policies’ but means something very different. Be careful about using ‘find and replace’ – unless you check each change carefull. Like autorrect, it can introduce new errors.
5. Be willing to learn as you go
Even if you’ve conducted the most concentrated and professional proofread of your work, you’ll only ever find the mistakes that you have the grammatical and spelling knowledge to spot. Proofreading should be as much an exercise in learning new things as it is in correcting errors, which means referring to a teacher or online resources when you are even a little unsure.
Never use a semi-colon if you don’t know how to, and never use a long word when you’re not exactly sure what it means. But if you have the time, educating yourself about complex grammar and rarely-used words will your enrich writing, so don’t shy away from learning about these things on your own.
Often the solution to grammatical worries is simply to Google a word, phrase or pair of homophones that you are unsure about, but specific webpages like Oxford Dictionaries or Collins Dictionary are fantastic resources that are are likely to answer all your questions about correct punctation, word use and variable spellings. The more you learn, the less you’ll continue to make mistakes in your writing.
6. Leave it overnight
After finishing a long piece of writing, often the last thing you want to do is to read through it slowly multiple times. The truth is, though, that the hardest work is behind you. If you have time wait a while (overnight ideally) between finishing the work and looking at it again. Some specialists recommend morning proofreading when you mind is most sharp. Taking a break and coming back to a piece of writing the next day will help you see it with fresh eyes.
If you can persuade a reliable friend to read your work that’s good too – they are sure to spot something you have missed, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t proofread it yourself. It’s your work so you should take the final responsibility for its quality.
Proofreading adds the polish to your words, ensuring all your hard work is not betrayed by mistakes in spelling, grammar or format that make it difficult to read and reflect badly on you as a writer.
Whether you’re sending a covering letter to employers, handing in an essay or emailing a family member, using these five tips will remove all the pesky mistakes from your text so that the reader can focus on the content of your writing and not the flaws.