Proofreading is a skill that can be learnt and perfected. If you can’t proofread now, you can learn proofreading techniques. It just takes practice and concentration.
Here I'll list several proofreading techniques and tips to help you proofread your own work. Use as many of them as you feel you need to.
1) Use your word processor’s spell checker
Many websites and proofreaders will tell you that spell checkers are false friends. They say, that they give you an unfounded sense of perfection in your writing; once all the red lines under the words have gone you believe that the document is finished and perfect. It’s not. Remember this and use your spell checker.
A spell checker is a good first tool. It'll get rid of most of the mistakes so you'll only have to concentrate on finding the few remaining ones.
If you don’t have your spell checker switched on while writing, run it when you've finished. It'll get most of the mistakes. But remember it's your document, not the spell checker’s document.
Don't accept all the changes suggested by the spell checker without thinking about them first. You've the final call whether or not to accept the change.
Also use the grammar checker, but with much more caution and think much harder before accepting any suggested changes.
Proofreading is something which is hard to do even when you use all the best proofreading techniques. If it was easy all your documents would be perfect.
You need to apply yourself and concentrate when proofreading. The mistakes are often very small and you'll need to look carefully for them.
The best way to help yourself do this is by working without distractions and concentrating hard on the proofreading.
This means no television while also proofreading, no chatting with friends while proofreading and no other distractions.
3) A suitable work environment
This goes with concentration from above. The best way to maintain focus and concentration while proofreading is to do it in a work environment.
This means working at your desk or in the library, where it's quiet and there are no distractions.
Proofreading is part of the writing process and should be treated as such. Maintain the work habits that you used during the writing part while doing the proofreading and your good proofreading techniques, from this page, will be even more useful.
4) Work from a paper copy
If you proofread on a computer screen until you're sure that your document is perfect, and then print it, I guarantee that you'll find more mistakes when you read it again. For some reason your eyes are less able to see the mistakes on the computer screen than the printed page, so this is also a valuable proofreading technique.
Always print a copy of your document and proofread it. Especially if you've a lot of mistakes to correct, I would recommend that you try to learn some of the proofreading marks I have provided. These will help keep your document clear and easy to read as you make all the changes.
This is not always possible, if you're up against a deadline, for example, but if possible, wait 24 hours, at least, before starting to proofread.
You know what you intended to write, so your brain will often see what was meant to be on the page, rather than what really is on the page. Taking a break will give your brain a chance to forget what it wanted to say and read what is really on the page when you come to proofread.
This is one of the most important techniques. Try to plan your writing and work schedule so that you always have time to wait before starting to proofread.
If you don't have time to wait 24 hours, wait as long as you can. But always get up and leave your desk for ten or fifteen minutes before starting to proofread. Go somewhere else; clear your mind as much as you can.
6) Leave enough time to proofread
Linked to waiting above, plan your writing so that you've time to wait. However long you leave to write your document, add another 24 hours where you'll be doing nothing, just waiting to start proofreading.
Also, most of these proofreading techniques need plenty of time for you to carry them out fully. They should not be rushed, for them to have a full effect on your writing.
Proofreading is part of the writing process; make sure you've time to do it properly.
7) Read out loud
Find somewhere you won’t be disturbing anyone else and read your work out loud and slowly to yourself. This'll help you listen to the sound of your language. You'll be able to tell if it sounds right; if it doesn’t try to rewrite that part.
8) Read your work backwards
Start at the end and read each word, working from the last word to the first word. This'll help you concentrate on each word rather than the meaning and contents of the sentence or paragraph.
If you think this sound a little strange, as a proofreading technique, just try it and see if it helps you.
9) Double space
When you print your document to proofread it, double space the text so that you've plenty of space to make corrections; this'll also help you concentrate on each word more as it isn't sounded by as many other words. The white space will help you concentrate.
10) Use a straight edge
Use a ruler or a blank piece of paper to help you read just one line at a time. Hold the paper or ruler so that it covers the rest of the text below what you're reading. This'll stop your eyes from skipping ahead and so possibly missing something on the line that you're meant to be reading.
11) Work slowly
Don't skim your document. Take the time to read each and every word. Focus on and think about each and every word.
Proofreading properly takes time because you need to work slowly and concentrate on every word.
12) Double and triple check
You won't find all the mistakes the first time you proofread a document. You might not find them all the second time, but you should have found most of them. If you think there are still some mistakes left, proofread again. You could try a different proofreading technique each time you read your document.
Professional proofreaders will read each document at least twice. Not even a professional will find all the mistakes the first time. Also the corrections might introduce a few more mistakes, which need to be checked for.
If the document was important enough for you to write it in the first place, it's important enough for you to get it perfect. Proofread until you know there aren’t any more mistakes to find.
13) Work with a partner
Get someone else to read you document, out loud, to you. Make a note of anything that doesn’t sound right or that needs changing.
If you both have something to be proofread, take turns. Read each others’ documents. Switch between reading and listening often so that you remain fresh and focused on your part of the task.
14) Get someone else to read your document
Once you think your document is perfect get someone else to read it and ask them to list all the mistakes and bad language choices.
I would recommend asking someone that's not too close to you (your parents or partner for example) as they might not proofread ruthlessly enough and be too ‘kind’ to you by telling you they think it is wonderful.
15) Divide the task into parts
Read your document several times, once for each different type of mistake. For example, read first to correct problems with spelling, then again looking for punctuation problems and then for language choices, etc.
This'll help if there are lots of mistakes as you won't become overwhelmed trying to correct everything at once. Also if your language skills aren't great it'll help you concentrate and find all the mistakes related to that problem, as you only have to focus on one rule at a time.
If you've not proofread much previously this is a good proofreading technique to use when you start.
If you need to, you can subdivide the areas even more. Punctuation could be divided into looking for errors with commas, semicolons, apostrophes and so on.
See the proofreading check list for the areas that you might need to check.
16) Know your problem areas
If you know that you're poor in one part of language usage, pay extra special care to that part.
By proofreading for that part and correcting the problems you'll get better as you learn from correcting your own mistakes.
17) Make changes
Be willing to make changes to your writing, possibly major changes; if they're the only way to fix the problems you find. No matter how good your proofreading technique is, if you don't make the changes your document won't improve.
The proofreading stage is meant as a stage to prefect your writing. That means you'll have to change it, unless you can truthfully say it was perfect before stating the proofreading stage.
Hopefully you won’t need to make major changes, but if needed, do so. You need to produce the best writing that you can. If that means making major changes, make them.
For help you can visit the Excellent Proofreading and Writing Facebook. I’m happy to answer your questions or offer advice on this page.
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By Jolyon Dodgson, copyright © 2011-2020.
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