If you’re reading this, chances are you’re either a writer or a person who frequently comes into contact with the written word. You might be a journalist who writes articles, a blogger who writes blog posts, a student who writes term papers, or an activist who writes grant proposals. As long as your life includes at least an occasional putting of a pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, you know how important it is to proofread everything you write. You also probably know how tough it can be sometimes.
There’s a great article on Wired explaining why catching your own mistakes is such a challenging task. The fact that your brain is responsible for both the writing and the proofreading works against you, as does the tendency to simultaneously look for errors in spelling, grammar, and meaning. Still, people find ways to do it, and with a little help from only five tips, you will too.
1 Get All the Help You Can Every good word processor has an integrated spelling checker, and you shouldn’t be afraid to use it. Better yet, you can enlist the help of specialized proofreading software. You can’t rely on these tools completely because they might not have the proofreading capabilities of a human. But some tools get close. Ours does, and we’re not saying it because we want to sing our own praises. It’s just a statement of fact.
2 Go Into Proofreading Prepared When Roy Peter Clark suggests something, writers around the world take heed. When he says you should keep a list of the most common language errors you are prone to making, you should create it right away. The list might be helpful in the process of writing, but in the process of proofreading, it’s invaluable. It’s the kind of list that’s populated with “to” and “too,” “there,” “their,” and “they’re,” and similar errors.
Having a broader checklist of specific errors to look for in a text is also recommended. Parallelisms, split infinitives, grammar, and sentence structure issues should all be a part of a checklist you should go through every time you proofread. If you don’t want to develop one on your own, you can find great ones online.
3 Trick Your Brain We tend to be better at proofreading texts we are familiar with, as opposed to texts we see for the first time. However, the kind of familiarity you get when you read something once or twice before proofreading it and the kind of familiarity you get when you create your own text are not the same. The former is beneficial and the latter is not, so you need to trick your brain into the sweet spot of familiarity when you want to proofread your own work.
There are a couple of things you can do. First, put some temporal distance between the acts of writing and proofreading. Second, proofread a hard copy instead of a computer file, if you can. Either way, change the font, the size of the letters, even the number of columns in your text. Change the color of the letters. Whatever you need to do to make it look and feel different, do it.
4 Read Out Loud Reading out loud can actually increase the accuracy of your proofreading. Try reading the text in silence first, especially if you’re not reading your own work, and then reading it once more out loud.
5 Divide and Conquer You can’t take a text and proofread it in only one pass. Well, you can, but the results won’t be that good. You should do a few passes instead, each time concentrating on one specific thing. Here’s an example: First, make sure the editing process is completed and that there are no issues with clarity, style, or structure. It’s rarely a good idea to proofread and edit at the same time, as you’ll probably get a poorly edited, poorly proofread text in the end.
Start with reading the text, out loud, as mentioned in the previous tip. That will help you catch some errors, such as missing or double words. Get your list of common mistakes and check for them in the text. Follow that with a grammar check. If you followed tip number two, you probably have a list of things you need to check—things like grammar issues related to the use of verbs and pronouns, for example. So you check your text for those issues. While you’re at it, you can check sentence structures for errors. Next, move on to checking punctuation. You can highlight each punctuation mark in the text, look at it carefully, determine whether you need it or not, whether it’s placed correctly, and whether it should be replaced with another punctuation mark.
Finally, check the spelling. One of the best ways to do that is to read the text backward, word by word. That way, you will minimize the chances of your brain processing the whole sentence instead of a single word, so start with the very last word in the text, and move to the left and upward until you reach the first word. By the time you’ve done it, you’ll have an error-free text in front of you and the whole of 2016 to reap the benefits of knowing how to proofread efficiently and effectively. Have a good one!