My favourite proofreading tips

By Scott Bury

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?

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 will.

Thanks to Bards and Prophets blog

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

Scott Bury is author of The Bones of the Earth and One Shade of Red. He’s based in Ottawa, Canada, but you can visit his GoD Author page or his own blog.

15 comments on “My favourite proofreading tips

  1. Great list, Scott. I really can’t think of anything to add. My three top ones from the list are reading backward, reading aloud, and having someone else read. To me, they are the ones that jar me out of the story and allow me to see the words.
    I blame writing software for proofreading issues. The program I use auto-corrects many of my typing errors, so when I’m writing something that’s not my book (blog posts, FB comments, emails) I sometimes forget to make sure everything has come out correctly. All my friends who know I’m a writer like to make fun of me about that!
    Thanks for the great post.

  2. I have another tool. Have a reading program read your book to you. It reads what you really wrote, so you catch missing words and misspellings and used of the wrong tense….lots of things. It can’t do everything, but it fills a gap.

  3. Great tips! I also change the type of font, not only the size. I use red pen to correct my mistake. Plus I started reading backwards, which actually is a lot of fun:) Although, if the project is huge, it can be a bit tedious as well…. And I absolutely agree with the tip on putting the project aside for a day or – ideally – two.

  4. Great blog with loads of useful tips. My preferred method is to change the font and size and then give it the old-fashioned printing treatment. I think we naturally skim on the web so it’s good to get away from that temptation.

  5. Reading backwards is good only to find spelling mistakes, nothing more. I’ve heard this advice many times before, and I tried it once. It was so annoying I gave up before half a page was done. If it works for you, great, but I don’t recommend it to anyone. In fact, I tell others not to bother with it.

    I implement many of the suggestions you provide. In December I wrote a post about how I edit. It can be found here:

    Although I edit like crazy, sometimes I still find errors after I hit ‘send’ or ‘publish’ too, just like you. Those are the times I’d like to be able to kick myself, but…well, we’re only human.

  6. I’ll add a surprisingly uncommon way of proofreading: text-to-speech programs.

    You can download them for free or, if you have Windows 8, they come directly into the system.

    Admittedly, those robo-voices are still far from sounding natural but, as a way of proofreading large amounts of text quickly, they do wonders.

  7. Pingback: My favourite proofreading tips | Québec-Translation

  8. I do nearly everything you mentioned, except for reading backwards. I will definitely try this. Thanks for the tip.

  9. Pingback: 40 Tips For Editing Your Novel | Guild Of Dreams

  10. Best list of tips I’ve seen online. Glad to know that I’m not the only one that edits better when the font is increased and the work is actually printed-out.

  11. Pingback: My favourite proofreading tips | Wordslingr Magazine

  12. Great proofreading tips here. Very concise and easy to understand. For number 4 (proofing using your word processor) I’ve read some tips before that also recommended heavy use of the FIND and REPLACE features. Helps with things like standardizing ellipses and making sure the right characters are saying the right things.

  13. I actually like to take advantage of the Print Proof feature on Createspace. I order the print proof to read my book over on paper like I would a book by anyone else, and it really does make errors that I missed pop out like a sore thumb–especially seeing as how they’re in an actual physical book like the ones I’m so used to, hammering the point home. That’s the final step after proofreading the book several times myself on-screen (both during writing and after the whole story is done) and having others read through it.

    And for having your book proofread without springing for a professional editor, I recommend snagging the most brutally honest avid reader you have at your disposal. Someone with my sister’s credentials (the type who is known to devour five whole 250-300 page novels inside a week) is best.

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