By Scott Bury
A colleague said to me last week, “Now I know what you go through.
“I thought I had proofread a page carefully. Then I saw a typo on it, after I had approved the ‘final’ version.”
He was right about going through an experience similar to one of mine. I once handed out a hundred or so copies of a page I had written, before I noticed that I had typed a “9” instead of an open parenthesis — right at the top of the sheet.
At the time, my business card read “Editor.”
Where I miss typos tends to be the places that should be the most obvious and easiest places to see typos: headlines, photo captions, call-outs — wherever the text is big and bold and easy to see.
I have long held that “you can’t proofread your own stuff.” That’s because when you read what you’ve written, you don’t read what’s on the page or on the screen; you’re reading what’s in your own mind.
In your mind, everything you write is perfect. It expresses your thoughts precisely, captures every nuance and convinces your audience not only to hang on every successive word, but to involuntarily shout “YES!” to your argument.
Put that bit of undying prose aside for a couple of days, come back to it — and if you’re lucky, what you see is just embarrassing. If you’re not lucky, it’s career-ending.
We need to re-read and re-write our work several times, and we need someone else to read it over again to give us a dispassionate second opinion.
I think I have figured out the minimum number of times we need to re-write and re-read our work to achieve a professional standard of writing.
The zero draft
The first step is to compare the zero draft (it’s not a first draft until you’re ready to show it to someone else) to the outline. Have you answered the question that you started with? Have you covered all the points you wanted to?Have you even stated your thesis clearly? Is there enough in the piece to support it?
Even in fiction, every chapter needs a central idea, a unifying thought. It has to be about something. Does your zero draft have a central idea? Has it answered the audience’s questions? Does it tie up one idea and lead logically to the next?
Three re-reads, plus one
Next, let your writing sit for a while — ideally overnight, but if you don’t have that much time, then at least a couple of hours. That gives the text a chance to drain from your brain, so that when you re-read it, you’re reading more of what’s actually on the page or screen than what’s in your best intentions.
On your first re-read, look for consistency, and ask whether the document achieves the goal you want to achieve. Does the writing make sense? If you started with a rhetorical question, have you answered it by the end? Are your statements and points in the right order? Does it all hold together, or have you missed critical elements?
The second re-read is closer, for finer details like verifying the spelling of names and checking that you got dates and times right. Make sure that the words you’ve chosen actually mean what you wanted to say. For example, did you write “comprised” when you meant “composed”?
Is your writing gender-neutral? Do the pronouns agree with the nouns and verbs in number? Are your verb tenses correct?
The third re-read is for the little details: spelling, punctuation, formatting. Go over it carefully. This is where you will see the difference between “You’re too tense” and “Your two tents.” Make sure that your periods and commas are inside the quotation marks (always, if you’re writing in English in North America). Did you use “it’s” correctly? In lists, are you using the serial comma consistently?
After your three re-reads, you have a first draft. Now, give your work to someone else to proofread. An independent person doesn’t have to look through the filter of your intentions to read your writing, and he or she will find mistakes in passages you were sure were perfect.
Next is the “plus one” I mentioned: after you’ve corrected all the mistakes that your independent party found, after you’ve checked that you’ve corrected them all, re-read your piece one more time. You’ll still find errors, or at least things you could improve. The longer the document is, the more you’ll find to fix.
If the document you’re working on is a book, fiction or non-fiction, that you intend to publish, then you’ve reached the stage where you are ready to submit it to a professional editor. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the friend you asked to proofread your first draft can fill that role. Publishing is a competitive and unforgiving world, and you need to use professionals to ensure your work achieves a professional standard.
It can seem that with every reading, you find more typos, more bad grammar and more things you want to change. The process may seem endless, especially if you’re been working on your book for months or years.
Don’t give up! I don’t believe there will ever be a perfect book or magazine or report, but there are excellent ones. You can achieve excellence if you take the time.