Pro Tips for Proofreading (Your Own Work Included)
Proofreading lies at the junction of mechanical dexterity and artistry. While a proofreader looks for errors, they’re also scouting for inconsistencies and formatting slips. Essays, memos, and contracts often need an eagle-eyed proofreader, too. Really, any text that’s going to be published can benefit from a good round of proofreading.
So, what’s an artist who self-edits “with their heart” to do? Hiring a proofreader will doubtlessly deliver strong results. It’s hard to proofread your own work—you absolutely need that fresh pair of eyes. However, everybody benefits from knowing how to proofread, at least before bringing in the big guns. Read on for some top proofreading tips.
Proofing and your mindset
Part of proofreading your own work is wrestling with your brain. It knows what you want to say and likes to “auto-correct” your writing as you read it, so you need to trip up its natural wiring. By getting your mind to read objectively, you’ll catch more errors.
Take a break first
Allow a gap before you start proofreading. At least get some sleep although a longer stretch is preferable. A few days, maybe even a few weeks…whatever works for you. This weakens your connection to the text.
Start from the bottom
Another way to interfere with your mind–page link is to read from end to beginning. By going backward, you force your mind to run on a different track. The sentences aren’t flowing together the way it remembers, so it fills in fewer blanks. This way, you can see each sentence—typos and all—for what it really is.
Change the font
Before you change your font, make sure any accent marks and formatting stay intact! A font change can make the text look different enough to trick your brain into seeing it as less familiar, thus allowing you to spot issues you may have missed. Just remember to change the font back.
Read it out loud
Reading your work aloud will make you process it differently and clue you in on errors your brain was parkouring over. In a more general copyedit, this also flags words and phrases that don’t sound right. You can’t skim over iffy structures, and you can actually hear what you’ve written, so you can view it in a more objective way.
Tips for your text
You don’t need an English degree to be a grammar pedant. Unless you’re proofreading a literary dissertation, you’re usually catching sneaky, small errors rather than whoppers. For higher-level grammar mistakes, hire a professional proofreader or even a copy editor.
Focus on errors, not style
For a pure proofread, tell your inner auteur to zip it. Ignore the whine that your feisty heroine would scamper rather than tiptoe. You should hunt for mechanical mistakes, not stylistic ones. You can address style issues later—or, better yet, your copy editor can.
Remember the basics
There are certain errors almost every writer makes. Have a Post-it note nearby as a reminder. Some common offenders are:
- Contractions and apostrophes—Errors include mixing up your/you’re, were/we’re, wont/won’t or apostrophes erroneously inserted in plurals.
- Quotation marks—It’s easy to misplace or forget to close them. Punctuation with quotation marks depends on the style guide you’re using, so you have some leeway. Just be consistent.
- Tenses and number—Make sure they agree. Sometimes this isn’t as clear-cut as it may sound, but that’s what the pros are for.
- Homonyms—Even veteran writers swap compliment/complement, definitely/defiantly, and read/red.
Weird spellings—Some words are notoriously tricky, like judgment, disparate, and rhythm.
Use your software judiciously
Programs like Grammarly catch some mistakes but you can’t fully depend on them—no, not even the premium version. One of history’s biggest proofreading gaffes occurred when a 1600s press left out a key word in “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” accidentally creating the Wicked Bible. Software wouldn’t have helped. Moreover, not every mistake that checkers catch is actually a mistake.
Double-check names and terms
While fact-checking has its own process, spelling is part of proofreading. If it’s a company, an idiom, or a foreign phrase, double-check it. In the rush of correcting grammar, it’s easy to forget about Dr Pepper, Hyundai, 1600s/17th century, and the ’80s. By extension, if your work includes dates, days (Wednesday, May 11, 2022), phone numbers, or websites, recheck them. You don’t need to get caught up in fact-checking during your proofreading phase, but at least flag anything you’re unsure of so you can verify it later.
Pay attention to formatting
It’s easy to forget that a proofreader’s job isn’t just grammar and spelling. A book’s interior layout also has a major impact on its readability and overall feel.
Routinely check your numbering
If your work has a table of contents or an index, those numbers might change throughout edits. A proofreader must check numbering, both numerals and spelled-out versions.
Keep tabs on page layout
Maybe it’s witchcraft, but layouts can get muddled and incongruous. Remember to check margins, headers, and indentions for consistency. Consult the internet for advice if your word processor isn’t quite as user-friendly as you’d like.
Print your document
A physical copy helps your mind and your eyes. You’ll read it differently when it’s in front of you on paper, and you’ll notice format changes from page to page.
Proofreading takes time and concentration, but as you train your mind, your skills become stronger. Nevertheless, it’s always more difficult to proofread your own work, so hiring a professional proofreader will ensure you cover all your bases. Think of your proofreading as the first round before you call in the experts to take care of the job once and for all.