Monday, April 28, 2014

My 15 favourite proofreading tips

Don’t you just hate it when you see a typo in work you’ve just published, posted on a website or sent to a client?

Creative Commons image: Wikihow
Every writer needs to learn how to proofread. As a professional editor for over 30 years, I have a few favourite techniques for effective proofreading. Here are some, plus a few ideas I picked up from some other professionals.

1. Plan for proofreading. Set aside a number of hours in your schedule. Proofreading is a step as essential as researching, outlining or drafting. Never send your work to an audience without checking it over. Set aside enough time to allow you to proofread your work more than once. 

2. Leave it alone. When you re-read your own work, you often don’t see what you actually wrote — you see what you intended to write. Put the document aside overnight, if you have the time. Leaving some time between writing and proofreading will help you spot the keystrokes you  did not intend to make.

3. Post a list over your desk of words you often misspell, and the conventions for the document — whether you’re using Canadian, British or US spelling; acceptable short forms; units of measure; whether you use the Oxford comma or spaces around em dashes, and so on — that could change from one project to the next.

4. Proof once on-screen. Take advantage of the spelling checker function of whatever word processor you use. Look for the wiggly red lines and fix the errors they identify. 

5. Don’t depend on the spelling checker. It can’t tell whether you meant form when you typed from, and it doesn’t always know when you typed its when you should have typed it’s. 

6. Don’t depend on your on-screen proofreading. We don’t read words on screen in the same way that we do on paper, so you’ll find different kinds of errors — and miss different errors, too — depending on which medium you use. Print out your document and read it on paper.

7. Proof BIG. One of my favourite proofreading techniques is to print out the document at large size, twice as big as you would normally. When I was a magazine editor back in the days of waxed paper galleys, we would copy our 8 x 10 inch pages onto double-size ledger paper (11 x 17 inches). The mistakes would practically jump onto your face. If your printer can’t handle large-format paper, you can still print out your document with 18-point type. You’d be amazed at the difference.

8. Use a brightly coloured pen to mark the errors. If you use a graphite pencil, it’s harder to see the corrections you made when you’re entering them into the computer file.

9. Read it backwards. This will take your attention away from the meaning of the text, and reduce the tendency to fill in errors with your intentions.

10. Read it aloud. Hearing the wrong word reinforces reading it.

11. Read headlines and sub-headings in a separate pass. I find that the errors that I miss are often in display text, which seems counter-intuitive, as this is larger and more visible than body copy. After you’ve read and re-read the body, go back and pay close attention to only the display text.

12. Review different elements separately. Take another pass through the document to proofread image captions, tables, page headers and footers, call-out text, etc.

13. Take another pass to review numbers, facts and the spelling of names.

14. Read  it over once more, just to make sure.

15. Get someone else to do it. Someone unfamiliar with the text will find more errors more quickly than the author.

What’s your favourite proofreading technique? What’s your most common error?


  1. Anonymous8:24 AM

    Header errors!! I tend to write the header last and since it is short, don't give it the attention it needs. Thanks for some great tips!

    Onisha Ellis

  2. Great tips Scott! I'll try some of them! Thanks!

  3. Anonymous10:28 AM

    All good points. I have to remember to read my books aloud - I'll be honest, by the time I'm at that point, I just want to pull my hair out as I've read it so many times and edited so many times - all valid tools to use above.

  4. Try #3, Scott. I like your tips and have found #10 to be one I follow religiously. I read aloud to my wife who has gotten used to "blah blah blah, Hold it (click click click) blah blah blah" as I read. Plus #7 and #8 are regulars, too. I scratch out LARGE and in red so I can see the errors when I scan the page. Those itty-bitty little added commas or periods are a bitch to find, even IF they are red. And #15 is a guarantee to find errors. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I like the "reading backwards" idea. I will give that a try on my next project. Sometimes, I end up *adding* errors when proofreading, by hitting a stray key or cutting and pasting something without a space... Sheesh! That's when I know it's time to step away from the keyboard.

    ~Tui Snider~ Dropping by from the A to Z challenge! :D
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  6. I have an edits list that I go down every time I'm proofing my work. I use the "find" feature in MS word to search for qualifiers like "in fact" and much more. That's my favorite way to edit now.

    Your tips are great. Really appreciate the post.

  7. My favorite way to edit is using the "find" feature in MS Word, and going down a list of editing items, searching for each one. It's fast and thorough. As you check off each item, you can be sure you didn't miss anything.

    Thanks for this post! These are great tips.

  8. All great suggestions, Scott. I'll second M.J. Kelley's suggestion of a list of search items; I use it every time, and you can include wild card characters, spaces, etc. to look for misplaced punctuation marks, for example. Use of text to speech apps to listen as you proof is also a good way to avoid seeing what you expect instead of what's there.

  9. I do most of the above, all good points, especially #15. I also send a copy of my manuscript to my Kindle and wait a day or so before reading as I've found I can spot quite a few errors that way. Sadly, even with all that, I've still sometimes seen an error or typo crop up in something I've published. Grrr!

  10. Reading backwards works. It's just so painfully slow for a 100K+ word novel

    Reading out loud, on the the other hand, is a blast.