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.