10 ways to become a better proofreader

Reading time: About 2 minutes

If you can afford to outsource your proofreading, do it. If you can’t here are some tips that will help…

Do you clean your own gutters? Change the oil in your own car? Bake every birthday cake from scratch? I’m guessing you don’t do many — if any — of these things. And you shouldn’t proofread, either.

Proofreading is a specialized job requiring someone with talent and training. I’m not a natural proofreader myself, but I know how to hire excellent ones. They should cost about $40/hour.

But if I must proofread, I can do it using the following tricks. You can use them, too:

(1) Allow some time to pass after you finish writing/editing and before you start proofreading. We all make unconscious mistakes and they are hard to spot because our brains “fill in” the correct word. You may have meant to write trickier but somehow it came out as tricker. The trouble is, if you’re familiar with the story, your eye will glide right by the error. If you take a break, however, you’re far more likely to catch the problem.

(2) Print out your text and proofread on paper. In part, because using a computer shines a light in our eyes, we all read material on screen much more quickly and less carefully than we do in print. Try to print out your work before proofing it.

(3) If there is some reason that prevents you from printing, use a distinctive typeface and dramatically increase the point size before proofing. When I am forced to proof on screen, I like to use Papyrus or Candara 18 point – this makes it easier to spot errors.

(4) Pay particular attention to names (people, books, movies, songs), addresses, titles and dates. Be aware the single most common mistake is to mismatch days with dates. (For example: saying Monday, Sept. 19, when in fact it is Tuesday, Sept. 19.)

(5) Check what I call the “ big, obvious yet somehow invisible” stuff. By this, I mean logos, company names, and extra-large headlines. Ironically, the bigger the type, the more likely you are to miss a typo.

(6) Start at the end. Professional proofreaders often read at least once backwards. No, I don’t mean they read the words backwards. I mean, they read the last sentence first. Then the second last sentence, then the third last sentence…until they work their way back to the beginning. This forces them to read each sentence in isolation – breaking the familiarity with the piece that might cause them to miss errors.

(7) Put a ruler underneath each line as you read the text. This forces you to work much more slowly and stops your eye from jumping ahead.

(8) Consider what you might have left out. For instance, if the piece requires an RSVP, it needs a phone number or e-mail address to which someone can respond. It should also have the date of the event and an address.

(9) Make a list of your own common spelling or grammar errors and check for those specifically — do you mix “affect” and “effect” for example?

(10) Read your work aloud at least once. You’ll catch a lot more errors this way.

What are your proofreading secrets? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Sept. 30/17, will be put in a draw for a copy of Becoming an Academic Writer by Patricia Goodson. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

This post originally appeared on my blog on Feb. 7/14.

Posted September 12th, 2017 in Power Writing

  • Bob

    Very helpful advice, but it is difficult to reconcile (3) and (5).

    • Good point. I was thinking specifically of a logo for a company I used to work for. We redid the publication and had a new logo made — and the graphic artist made a typo. None of us spotted it (because we didn’t really “read” it; we just assumed it would be correct). Fortunately, our printer found the mistake and called us before it went on the presses!

  • Russel Stuart

    Great points for becoming a better proofreader and for more information click here: https://goo.gl/Fuierf

  • Jazz88

    Excellent!

  • Sally

    Great!!

  • Tom Morrisey

    My first pass is always audio. I turn on the text-to-speech engine on my Macbook and listen while I follow along on a printout. The errors jump out when I do that.

  • kimmarla

    So true! I’m fine proofreading other people’s writing, but I try to always have someone else proof my work. I just cannot see my own errors when I know what I intended to say. I’d love to share this on my Facebook page – my readers love your stuff!

    • I think if you follow a few of the suggestions above you’ll find that you’re able to do a much better job or proofreading your own work. Yes, feel free to share this on your Facebook page.

  • April Henry

    Like Tom I have my computer read to me.

  • Clarke Echols

    I’ve never had access to and have never used a professional proofreader. I have a tendency to catch glitches, goofs, and wrong words in stuff I read because they’re so obvious to me
    (affect vs. effect, diffuse vs. defuse (you can’t diffuse a riot but you can defuse it by breaking up the situation that becomes a riot). They’re, their, and there are really bad. I saw a home page on a web site that used every one of those at least once, and every on was wrong.

    So I run the file through a spelling checker to catch typos. Then I print out everything that’s for a client. After letting it sit for at least 2 or 3 days, I carefully read the printed copy aloud to myself, listening to the words, catching clumsy sentences, unclear wording, or other problems. On most projects, I’ve done that at least 2 or 3 times — the more important, the more times I do it.

    If I’m not dead-certain on spelling, I always verify with a good dictionary. I also violate rules that should be ignored. Example:
    cannot and can not are NOT equivalent, and I can prove it. Use cannot where you’d say can’t. For example, if I live 50 miles from Denver, I can say: I cannot go to Denver if I don’t have a vehicle, gas, a driver’s license, etc. That means I can’t go to Denver. But if I have the required resources, I have a choice: I can go to Denver, or I can *not* go to Denver. Big difference, even if Meriam-Webster treats them as equivalent.

    Accuracy in clarity trumps “rules” every time. I also *rarely* do not use the “Oxford comma”. It’s “red”, “white”, and “blue”. Punctuation AFTER the closing quote. Not “red,” “white”, and “blue,” and certainly not red, white and blue. After all, how am I to know you’re not calling a color “white and blue”.

    Never allow ambiguity. A missing “Oxford comma” in a legal document cost a company over $1.3 million in a judgement from a labor dispute lawsuit. Never force me to have to guess what you mean.

    And that’s my rant for today.

    • Thanks for your rant, Clarke. Nothing better than a worthwhile rant.

  • Jagadish Kumar

    We have been taught by you the importance of editing before. This time it’s proof reading. I think if we take care of those two even an ordinary subject may look presentable. Thank you for you lovely tips, Daphne.

    • Many people don’t allow enough time for proofreading and don’t have an “organized” enough process for doing it. You’re quite right that a document that’s well proofread will be much more presentable.

  • Douglas Kent

    Thanks, Daphne. I use the return key to break a paragraph into one sentence per line. This helps me to focus on sentence clarity and order. One edited, I reassemble into a parapraph that is usually quite improved.

  • Michael

    I use the text-to-speech feature in MS Word – it’s as good as having someone read your writing out loud to you, and better than reading it out loud yourself. It makes it very easy to catch errors of the tricker/trickier type because they sound super awkward.
    https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Using-the-Speak-text-to-speech-feature-459e7704-a76d-4fe2-ab48-189d6b83333c

  • Thanks tons!

  • Subhash K

    Point 5. is so true! Will try 6.

  • Molly Corso

    These are great ideas. I have never tried number 3 – it makes a lot of sense. Will have to try it!

    • Yes, change the stye of the font. I know it makes a huge difference for me.

  • Felipe Nascimento

    I loved this post today. Actually I use some of the things mentioned in the list and I think it’s fantastic.

    One of the things I use before doing the review is an organization of what I’m going to write.

    One of the first techniques I use is the “5W2H” management tool that makes me organize and make clear what I’m going to write.

    This technique is based on the following categories:
    5w:
    – What (what will be done?)
    – Why (why will it be done?)
    – Where (where will it be done?)
    – When (when?)
    – Who (for whom will it be done?)
    2H:
    – How (how will it be done?)
    How much will it cost?

    Other revision techniques I practice after working out my text is to read aloud, reread at least 2 times the text and also I print the text on paper and use a marker to highlight the important parts and check what I I can add or remove certain sentences or words in the text.

    Thank you so much for sharing more ideas on how to review, I am very grateful and I hope I have shared something that helps people as well.

    See you later o/

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Filipe! I’m a big believer in reading aloud (or having the computer read it aloud TO me.)