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.


How many times do you edit?

Image courtesy, via Daily Galaxy

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.

Don’t despair

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.

By Scott Bury

This week, my contribution is an excerpt from my novel, The Bones of the Earth. This is a historical fantasy, set in eastern Europe in the 6th century CE, the darkest of the Dark Ages.Bones Cover FINAL FOR WEB

This excerpt  is from Part 2, Tests. The hero, the socially inept Javor, and Photius, the mysterious traveler from Constantinople, have found a village called Bilavod that had been attacked by Avar raiders, and stayed to help them heal and rebuild. On the second night there, the Avars attack again:

Javor swung his sword, but the raider was quick and skilled and engaged him in a terrifying bout. Time after time, Javor barely dodged swipes of the curved blade. He couldn’t connect and was conscious of his own lack of skill and experience.

The other man knew he had the advantage. He hit Javor on the arm, then on the head with the flat of his blade. He drew no blood, but the pain slowed Javor down. He swung his blade again and missed again. His opponent seemed to go for his chest, but suddenly swiped savagely at Javor’s legs, tripping him. Javor went down hard. The amulet fell out of his jerkin then, but its chain was still on his neck, and Javor grabbed it unconsciously. The curved sword struck his back, ringing on the armour, but it didn’t penetrate.

Javor rolled on top of his sword. He tried to get out his dagger, but the raider brought his down on Javor’s chest. The blow winded Javor, but the armour held, ringing.

He sat up and leaped forward at his opponent’s legs, bringing the man down, and drove his dagger into the man’s face and up into his brain. The raider spasmed, then slumped, dead.

Another blow took off his helmet and blinded Javor. He scrambled to his feet, clutching at his amulet. A huge raider, almost a head taller than him, swung a huge sword at his neck, aiming to take his head off, but missed; Javor felt the wind as the blade swept past his face. He lunged forward, using the dagger-to-the-brain strategy again, and it worked again. He picked his broadsword off the ground and ran to a knot of villagers who were trying to fend off ten or more raiders. From the corner of his eye, he saw yet more climbing the walls. It’s hopeless.

Javor reached the knot of fighters and ran his sword into one’s back, pulled it out and slashed at another raider who was about to decapitate Slawko, the refugee from Kletka. Allia was behind him, brandishing a small knife used for filleting fish. She looked terrified and grateful at the same time, but then Javor jumped past her and killed another raider coming up from behind. It’s no good. There are too many of them.

Photius and Mstys were beside him, then, and pulled them toward one of the buildings where a group of people from Bilavod and Kletka had grouped to make a stand. They had bows, long knives, a scythe, axes and a few captured swords. They stood against the low wooden wall of a store-house, facing ten armoured raiders. Most of them were wounded; Mstys was bleeding from his face, another man—Lesek?— from the leg.

Then Javor became aware of something that had been bothering the back of his mind for some time: it was getting darker, but the time couldn’t be past noon. Dark clouds had covered the sky, which had dawned clear and blue. The light grew dimmer and dimmer. It seemed to be bothering the raiders, who hesitated to attack the villagers.

Photius muttered and the end of his staff started to glow again, but before he could do anything, a cry like a huge raven’s came from overhead. There was a rushing sound, and something huge with wings swept above them.

The raiders looked up, yelling in dismay. The raven’s scream came again, and the villagers cowered, looking skyward. Photius and Javor kept their eyes on the raiders. Then came the rushing sound and something big as a large dog with wide feathered wings dove out of the darkening sky and knocked down a raider.

The thing settled on the ground and folded its wings. It looked at first like a monstrous eagle, but it had four legs: the forelegs were like the legs of an eagle, too, but thicker and more powerful than any bird’s, and its body behind was like a huge cat’s. A hooked beak terminated a feathered head on top of the long neck, also covered in golden feathers, but long ears like a horse’s stuck out on the sides. The beak opened and it uttered a loud, harsh scream.

The raiders ran, scrambling over the stockade, leaving behind their fallen fellows. Someone groaned on the ground, but the villagers were frozen with fear.

The creature looked straight at Javor with huge, yellow, intelligent eyes. It took a step toward him and Javor reached his left hand toward the amulet that hung from his neck against his breastplate.

The creature slowly walked to Javor until he could have touched it with an outstretched hand. It reached a front claw out in an oddly human gesture toward Javor’s chest. Javor clutched the amulet in his left hand and drew out his great-grandfather’s dagger with his right.

The creature jumped back, screeched again and launched itself into the air. With two flaps of its wings it disappeared into the lowering clouds. Rain began to fall. Allia, still holding her filleting knife, fainted behind him.

Javor realized his mouth was hanging open. He stared where the creature had disappeared. “What the hell was that?”

 “A gryphon!” Photius exclaimed. “I thought they were extinct since the Scythians were conquered.”

Gryphon in medieval tapestry in Basel, Switzerland. Source: Creative Commons.

Javor turned to him. “What?” he and Mstys said at the same time.

“A mystic creature, guardian of treasure, servant of the sky gods,” said Photius, still gazing at the clouds. “They lived on the broad steppes. I had thought they disappeared centuries ago. And they have never been heard of in these lands.”

“Well, it’s gone now. I suppose we should be thankful that it came at all,” said Mstys. He looked around at the devastation that had been his village.

“They’ve gone!” called a sentry. “The raiders, their horses, all gone! The creature drove them away!”

Javor and Photius slumped down. “Are you hurt, boy?”

Javor checked. “No, other than a few bruises. No cuts, though.”

“I daresay your amulet protected you again. It seems to like you.” He smiled a little.

“That thing—what did you call it?”

“A gryphon. A creature of the sky. A servant of Zeus. Part lion, part eagle …”

“What did it want?”

Photius looked at Javor. “What else? The amulet. But the amulet did not want the gryphon. And your dagger scared it off. Those items have great power, my boy.”

Javor didn’t know what he meant.

Liked it? Hated it? Leave a comment!

An excerpt from Dark Clouds

Valentine’s Day is coming up fast (any man reading this who has not yet made dinner reservations, ordered flowers,  bought chocolate and shopped for lingerie and still wants to stay in a relationship – get a move on!), and one present I like to give is a story. This year, for the second year in a row, my Valentine’s story is a chapter in my fantasy work in progress, Dark Clouds.

Warning: Adult content.
The excerpt below depicts two adults doing what adults tend to do together. Reader discretion blah blah blah.

Magic spell effects by Mario Sanchez Nevado

Magic spell effects by Mario Sanchez Nevado

Dark Clouds, Chapter 5: Magic Love

Matt drummed his fingers on the cheap motel desk, chin cupped in his hand. Without a computer, he felt vulnerable and naked.

The lamp flickered. From behind him, Matt heard a sibilance, whispers in a language that sounded archaic, even though he could not quite hear the words.

He also realized it was getting hot in the motel room rose. He turned, pulling off the cheap sweat-shirt. Teri sat cross-legged on the bed with her eyes closed, holding her hands up in front of her face. Her lips fluttered as she whispered. “Where’s Julian?” he asked.

Teri did not answer for another minute, but continued whispering. Finally, she lowered her hands and opened her eyes. “He left a quarter of an hour ago. You were so deep in thought, you didn’t even notice.”

“Sorry. I feel so … useless without a computer. Where did he go, anyway?”

“He talked Racine into getting him his own room. Said he felt uncomfortable sleeping with us. You know — a straight couple.”

“Right. So, what are you doing? And why is it so hot in here?”

“I’m casting a spell.”

“I think I’ve had enough of those for now.”

Teri smiled at him and raised her hands again. “You’re going to like this one.”

He stood, pulling the t-shirt away from his skin to cool off. “What’s the thermostat set at, anyway?”

“It has nothing to do with the thermostat,” Teri said as she closed her eyes. She concentrated and whispered the last few lines of the spell.

When she opened her eyes, the cheap motel room was gone, replaced by a thick, white mist. Colour swirled and drifted lazily: deep blues, purple, pink. She saw flowers from the corner of her eyes, and smelled them, too, instead of the stale mustiness of the motel room.

Matt came closer and sat beside her, but what he was sitting on, she could not see. “You know it won’t work on me.”

Matt saw the sagging bed, the worn cover, the cheap sweat clothes Racine had brought them. The room depressed him: its worn-out, damp smell, the stains that covered most of the threadbare carpet, the chipped, gouged and flimsy furniture. He hesitated every time he entered the bathroom.

Teri kissed him softly. “Relax, Matt. After all we’ve been through, we’re safe for now. Let it happen.” And their clothes were gone.

He frowned. “How—”

She pressed a finger against his lips. “Sshh. Don’t fight it. Go with the flow.” The lamp flickered again and then went out, and the only light came from the street lamp, filtered through the thin curtains.

Then the motel room faded altogether from Matt’s view as Teri brushed her lips across his, and her fingertips down his bare chest. Her scent replaced the room’s musty odour in his nostrils.

Teri kissed his neck, nibbled along his collarbone. Her fingers moved lower, almost tickling his belly, and then lower still. She kissed his throat, moving up to his chin. She pushed him backward until he was lying on … something that was not the coarse bedspread.

Matt opened his eyes. Teri’s face, framed in her brown wavy hair, hovered over him. Behind her was a white cloud. Tendrils of mist reached toward them. Hints of colour played at the edges of his vision. He could not be sure whether or not he heard music.

“Teri, is this magic?”

She pressed her mouth against his and pushed her tongue into his mouth. She pressed her naked body against his and wrapped her legs around his. He felt her nipples against his skin.

He did not ask any more questions. He took his wife in his arms and pressed her closer. He drank her in, inhaled her, greedy for every sensation.

She was doing something to him, he knew, something she had never done before, or maybe it was something that he had never let himself feel before. He felt as if they were floating, free of the bed, the motel, gravity. He pressed his eyes closer together and willed himself not to question his feelings. He concentrated on his wife, on how her mouth felt on his, on her tongue, on her hands roaming over his body.

His hands roamed, too, touching every part of her, cupping her rounded bottom. Her thighs rose higher along his own and he felt how wet she was, how hard he was.

Teri broke the kiss, arching her back as she took him. He could not tell whether she was on top or he was, because he could not tell where up was anymore.

He closed his eyes again so they could not question the mist or the flowing colours. He willed himself to experience his wife, only his wife, through his skin, his tongue and his lips. He kissed her soft body, licked her breasts and her neck. He pulled her hips into his own and relished the feeling of being inside her. He loved the sounds she made, her soft moans and cries, her ragged breathing as he pushed, gently, firmly, harder.

Then he reached that exhilarating plateau. The world was gone, there were only Matt and Teri. Every sensation they felt was a blinding white bliss and they moved as one and breathed together and cried out their love together and sank slowly down, drifting through the swirling colours, pulling each other closer again. Matt’s mouth found Teri’s and they clung to each other, and the cloud faded.

Matt could feel the coarse bedspread against his shoulders. Teri was smooth and soft and warm and a little sweaty on top of him. He kissed her one more time and dared to open his eyes.

They were back in the motel room. The lamp flickered back to life. Something else started to hum.

Teri’s eyes were closed. Her mouth curled into a sweet smile.

Matt started to ask his wife what had happened, where the cloud had come from and why the magic worked. No, some part of him said. Just hold onto that. Don’t question it.

They held each other like that until the Alberta night seeped through the motel’s cheap weatherstripping and they got too cold. Then they pulled the thin blankets over themselves and held each other close against the cold until the sun rose.


I’d like some feedback on this before I go to a final draft. Let me know what you thought in a comment.

If you liked this excerpt and want to read more, visit my blog, Written Words, and see the tabs at the top for Dark Clouds, A Magic Romance and Some Days, I Wish I Never Met that Woman.