Top 10 proofreading tips

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Proofreading is a difficult art, especially when you’re trying to check your own writing. Here are my top 10 tips to help you correct and improve your work.

A lot of people still think that running an automatic spellcheck is all they need to do to find and fix their errors. I can’t really blame them. Microsoft Word and other word-processing programs don’t tell them otherwise.

Talk to an editor or proofreader and you’ll soon understand that automated tools aren’t enough. Perhaps they will be enough in the future – computers are getting better all the time – but right now, they aren’t.

Don’t get me wrong: you should still do a spellcheck to squash the obvious typos. But that’s just the starting point.

Tip 1. Never rely on a spellchecker

Using a spellchecker is one thing; relying on it is something quite another. Spellcheckers have their place but they won’t catch every mistake.

Even when words are spelled correctly, they’re often used incorrectly. Compare these statements:

  • We have an envious track record.
  • We have an enviable track record.

The spellchecker skips right through and says everything’s fine. But wait: the first sentence doesn’t convey the right meaning (hey, trust us, even though we’re jealous of everyone else!).

Knowing such issues exist is one thing; finding and fixing them is quite another. But that’s what the remaining tips are about, so don’t give up!

Spellcheck alone is rarely enough.

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Tip 2. Be clear

Keep your target audience in mind. Will they understand your writing? Get these basics right:

  • Clarity: make clear statements
  • Simplicity: eliminate jargon where possible
  • Tone: use appropriate language

Did you know?

The Society for Editors and Proofreaders promotes high editorial standards.

I’m an Advanced Professional Member and sit on the Society’s council, so you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m interested in improving the standards of all written work.

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Tip 3. Use printouts (and plant trees)

My least environmentally friendly tip is to proofread a printout of your work. For some people, it’s easier to spot errors on paper than on a screen. If you’ve ever written a letter in Microsoft Word and then seen something wrong with it after it was printed, you’ll know what I mean.

If you can, add some space between the lines of text and choose a typeface that’s easy on the eye. I prefer sans-serif typefaces, but it’s really all down to personal preference.

Another popular move is to increase the size of the typeface. Bigger is better. You could even switch to a different font altogether – anything that makes the text look different onscreen could help you uncover more errors.

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Tip 4. Read your content backwards

Altering your reading pattern can help you spot oddities and mistakes in your text. Reading backwards can be slow going at first, but you’ll soon speed up. Persevere and the rewards will come.

Backwards content your read.

(If it helps, imagine you’re Yoda. Mistakes more spot will you.)

Reading backwards doesn’t mean you need to start from the end of a document and work your way back. I apply the process at the sentence level, not the document level.

Here’s an example:

,lamb little a had Mary
.snow as white was fleece Its

The reordering is confusing enough without having to go from the end of the entire document to the beginning.

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John’s integrated approach and feedback embraced the entire site and our intentions while also picking up the minor details. Very thorough, professional and of the highest standards.

Allied Aerosystems
Phillip Ashurst
Managing Director
Allied Aerosystems

Tip 5. Read out loud

Saying your words out loud helps reveal the statements most likely to cause confusion among readers. If a sentence sounds clumsy when you say it to yourself, imagine what someone else might make of it. Do some rewording and make life easier for your audience.

Bonus tip: get your Mac to do the speaking

Did you know that Macs can easily speak text selections out loud? See my post here: Speaking text on your Mac.

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Tip 6. Proofread in the morning

Or whenever your brain is at its most alert. Set aside some quiet time and get your checks done when you’re ready to concentrate.

If that’s not possible, do at least try not to check everything in a single sitting. A good night’s sleep and a fresh start may reveal several errors you’d previously missed.

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Tip 7. Break up the task

Read your content multiple times, each time looking for different types of issue. Here’s an example:

  • Reading 1: focus only on spelling
  • Reading 2: focus only on grammar
  • Reading 3: focus only on headings

The more you break things down, the easier each reading becomes. This approach is great for improving the consistency of your writing.

Be wary of re-reading your work too many times, though. Taking long breaks in between sittings can help you avoid ‘word blindness’.

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Tip 8. Phone a friend

Ask a colleague or a trusted friend to go through your document in as much detail as possible. Request specific feedback – what was good or bad about the content? Accept any comments with good grace and think about how you can make your writing clearer.

Did you know?

Search engines penalise bad spelling and grammar. If you want your content to perform well, bear that in mind!

Google advice on spelling errors

Google’s own advice tells us to make sure we avoid making errors in spelling and grammar

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Tip 9. Don’t chase perfection

Don’t expect to spot every single error in your work. Don’t get hung up about it either.

There are diminishing returns in re-reading your work dozens of times. If your meaning is clear, that may well be good enough. Remember that your time is precious.

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Tip 10. Call in the professionals

If you’ve followed the other tips in this post, perhaps you’ve already fixed some errors in your work. If so, well done! Each correction is a small victory.

To ensure your text is the best it can be, consider hiring an editorial professional. The SfEP’s Directory of Editorial Services lists hundreds of editors and proofreaders who can help you get your words in shape.

Society for Editors and Proofreaders

Try the SfEP if you need an editor or proofreader

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Over to you

Do you have any proofreading tips to share? Let me know by leaving a comment below, or catch up with me on Twitter. I’d love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading,

John Espirian

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