Anyone who writes for a living needs to develop a keen eye for detail. But, for many great writers, proofreading is their proverbial Achilles heel. You might have a super-malleable grasp of the written word, but a misplaced (or missing) comma can change “let’s eat, Grandma” into a rather unpleasant horror story in no time. Proofreading your own work can be a real challenge!
So, if you’re passionate about the written word and enjoy nothing more than crafting words into structures that form images in the mind’s eye, you’ll need to develop some proofreading skills to ensure you accurately deliver your meaning.
In this article, I’m going to explore some techniques (and, of course, some cheats!) to help you proofread your own work (and not miss the mistakes).
Get those eagle eyes at the ready!
We all make mistakes
From unconscious passive voice to incorrect subjunctives, we all make grammatical mistakes. And to a degree, most of these can be forgiven.
It’s the overlooked typos and inconsistent spelling mistakes that often get the goat of the reader and editor alike.
Consider this passage:
Msot of us cn raed a setense adn fnid meenng in teh txt whare the frsst and lsst lttaers aer cuorect. Ths is te porbelm.
Ultimately, we don’t slavishly read every letter of a word. As we develop our reading skills, we recognize the word’s shape. And as long as the beginning and end of the word look familiar, it doesn’t matter if it goes wrong in the middle — we unconsciously decipher it through context.
And this is what makes proofreading so tricky.
Proofreading tip #1: Recognize your idiosyncrasies
We all have words we correctly spell if we had a pen in our hands but consistently mistype. For me, I regularly type “that” rather than “than”; “out” rather than “our.”
And then there are those seemingly interchangeable e’s and a’s, and c’s and s’s in words like:
● Redundant (not redundent)
● Absence (not absense)
● Argument (not arguement)
Many of us confuse affect (the verb) and effect (the outcome). And don’t get me started on the split infinitives.
Honestly, we all make mistakes, and understanding your particular pitfalls is the route to perfection.
In short: acknowledge your weaknesses, and keep a keen eye for your most common mistakes.
Proofreading tip #2: How to identify your consistent errors
I thought I had a pretty firm grasp of the English language. That is until I became a professional writer and had to produce work at speed.
Copywriters, particularly, write under pressure — producing coherent, entertaining, and accurate copy at lightning (not lightening) speed!
And only when I was producing work at a high turnover rate did I discover some of my more consistent errors. I was running my writing through Grammarly and began to recognize the same mistakes repeatedly.
Grammarly helped me recognize my most consistent errors and made me a more mindful (and better) writer.
Proofreading tip #3: Learn your mistakes through Grammarly
I’d just like to point out that this article is not sponsored by Grammarly (but it has been checked with it). However, I quickly learned a bunch of grammar essentials I’d forgotten about (or didn’t know in the first place) once I developed my relationship with this brilliant writer’s companion.
And while Grammarly picks up on your typos (mostly), it also identifies other inconsistencies in your writing style.
Grammarly gives you a score, and I consider it a personal triumph if my unproofed piece gets above 90%. It rarely does, in fairness, but it’s good to have goals, right?
But my writing style has changed over the years because I realized that some of my habits were poor. And I started predicting how Grammarly would assess my work.
Using Grammarly has improved my first drafts because it taught me to overcome my biggest mistakes on the page.
Proofreading Tip #4: Give yourself time
A proofread is NOT a scan read.
Most of us are skillful scan readers because we’re adept at fishing for information on the web. That’s why we format blog posts in short paragraphs with short-ish sentences — to make the text scannable.
But proofreading is not a quick skim. It’s a precise skill, and you must give yourself time to spot your own mistakes.
Read your content out loud because it slows down the reading. Look at the shape of the words and read them slowly. I often imagine I’m a TV presenter (delusions of grandeur and all that) and read out loud at presenter speed. That way, I pick up on the mistakes more easily.
And if a sentence is difficult to read out loud, it often indicates a problem on the page.
Some of us aren’t brilliant sight readers, so perhaps reading out loud doesn’t work for you. In this case, try a text-to-talk app, such as Speechelo or get Cortana or Siri to read it out loud for you. This way, you’ll spot any errors from ear.
Proofreading Tip #5: Know your genre
Proofreading isn’t just a case of eradicating errors; it’s an opportunity to consider digestibility.
If you’re writing for a broad audience, aim for a high score in the Flesch test (this article gets 70, which means it’s suitable for an 8th-grade-level reader and above).
Higher scores in the Flesch test indicate ease of reading, so use shorter sentences and accessible language to ensure maximum readability.
If, however, you’re writing for a particular, more educated audience, you can afford to write longer paragraphs, including sentences with multiple clauses.
When writing a novel, consider whether you’re swiftly conveying the action. It can be frustrating for a reader to get to the end of a page and realize your character STILL hasn’t reached their destination (and they were only walking to the fridge to grab a beer).
Sometimes, proofreading is about looking at your words from your audience’s perspective. Consider pace. Sure, we might live for the complexity and malleability of words on the page, but:
● Is your image clear?
● Is there clarity in action?
● Is your dialogue dramatic (or is it expositional)?
Proofreading tip #6: Take context out of the process
The human brain is the master of filling in the gaps, making proofreading incredibly challenging. So, there are a couple of tricks you could employ to improve your chances of spotting errors.
Read your content backward. Start from the final paragraph, and work toward the beginning — one section at a time. This way, you interrupt the flow of action, giving you a sharper eye for mistakes.
Try it: it works.
Alternatively, try reading your work one sentence at a time in reverse order. It’s a bit like reading Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis.
Proofreading tip #7: Take a break
Like the “take your time” tip, it’s helpful to leave a period between writing and proofreading.
Give yourself a day or two between finalizing your draft and proofreading, if possible. This way, your eyes will see the text anew.
Even twenty minutes can be enough if that means you can step away from your laptop and grab a coffee. Breathe in some fresh air and clear your brain cache before returning to your screen (or your page if you’re old school).
Proofreading tip #8: Watch your homophones!
No, not homophobes — avoid those at all costs.
Homophones are words such as there, they’re, and their. They sound the same, but their spelling (and meaning) are different.
Watch out for:
● One/won (the first is a number; the second a triumph).
● Complement/compliment (one completes you; the other makes you feel good).
● It’s/its (the first is short for “it is,” the second is possessive).
● Principle/principal (one is an ethical rule; the other comes first).
● Here/hear (one is where you are right now; the other hits your ears).
● To/too/two (the first precedes a location; the second is a synonym for “also”; two is a number).
Proofreading tip #9: Print it out
Okay, so maybe the planet isn’t going to love you for this one. But transferring your writing from one medium to another can be a great way to see the words afresh.
Your eyes can get quickly tired when you’re staring at a screen all day. So, try old school: print your work out and use a pen to mark your errors.
Proofreading tip #10: Use a filter
I’m not talking about making yourself look younger and more beautiful on Instagram here.
Scotopic sensitivity is a form of dyslexia — it’s where the words move around the page, making it particularly challenging to digest written content. And the contrast of black text against a white background exacerbates the condition, which is way more common than you might think.
People who live with this condition (myself included!) use colored filters to help calm down the movement of the letters on the page. For printed copy, you can use Irlen overlays; for the screen, you could try Black Light for Mac or ssOverlay for Windows.
And this is not just a tip for people with scotopic sensitivity. Changing your screen’s appearance can refresh your eyes, making your brain more attentive and likely to spot errors.
How to Proofread your own Work (without missing the mistakes)
So, next time you complete a final draft of your current masterpiece, consider our proofreading tips before you hit “Send”.
Create an impact on the page — be direct, clear, and precise. Never send work before you’ve proofread it — it could mean the difference between a big contract and that predictable “thanks, but no thanks” email.
Harry Wallett is the Founder and Managing Director of Relay Publishing. Combining his entrepreneurial background with a love of great stories, Harry founded Relay in 2013 as a fresh way to create books and for writers to earn a living from their work. Since then, Relay has sold 3+ million copies and worked with 100s of writers on bestselling titles such as Defending Innocence, The Alveria Dragon Akademy Series and Rancher’s Family Christmas.
Harry oversees the creative direction of the company, and works to develop a supportive collaborative environment for the Relay team to thrive within in order to fulfill our mission to create unputdownable books.
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