With deepest apologies to Jane Austen, I’ll open with: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person or brand in possession of a web property must be in want of a proofreader.”
In haste to get things out and published, it seems as though more and more people, brands, companies, and yes, even book publishers, are skimping on (or skipping entirely) the crucial step of proofreading.
While I understand the desire to be first and fast, proofreading should be a fundamental part of every writer’s process. Proofreading can catch errors in logic, spelling mishaps, unintended word choices, punctuation mistakes, and a host of other minor calamities that can have an impact on how your words are received.
Here are some tips and tricks for proofing like a pro:
- Write first, and then edit, but then set the writing aside for a bit (if you can) before proofreading. While a few hours or overnight is best for something like an article or blog post, even an hour away from the piece can be beneficial. The time away from the writing allows the brain to focus on something else, so any errors are easier to spot when you return to read it.
- Use spell check/grammar check programs, but don’t assume they are always correct. Spell check is great for finding straightforward spelling mistakes, but the grammar functionality in Word frequently “suggests” the incorrect form of its/it’s when I’m writing.
- Verify word choices. Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com are your friends, and they are free! Use them to make sure that words—like “literally” or “ironic”—are being used correctly.
- Read backwards. Trust me; this really does work, especially if you are proofreading your own writing. When we write, we know what it is that we are trying to convey. When reading our own work, our brains will see what we meant to write, rather than what is written. By reading backwards, you’re looking at each word individually, rather than as a whole thought. This makes it easier to spot errors.
- Have someone else read the piece, if at all possible. Related to item #4, having a completely different set of eyes on a piece will not only help to spot spelling or grammar mistakes, it might also help to identify areas that need clarification.
- Proofread everything, including headlines, subtitles, and boilerplate.
- If you’re proofreading a longer piece, review a hard copy if at all possible. It’s much easier to spot errors when reading a hard copy, because we read differently online—we are more likely to skim when reading on a screen.
- Keep a list of your typical mistakes, and keep an eye out for them. Early in my career, I worked as a legislative aide to a state senator who was also a newspaper columnist. I frequently mixed up “that” and “which”—and the senator always corrected the error. Mortified by my inability to get this simple rule into my head, I printed it out and taped it to my computer screen. Problem solved.
- Pay attention to homophones. Okay, this one is on this list because it’s my own pet peeve. I’ve seen major news outlets publish mistakes like using “phased” instead of “fazed,” for example. Bear and bare, coop/coupe/coup, pair and pare—please be aware that words that sound alike can have completely different meanings. (This is another reason not to over-rely on spell check. These words are all spelled correctly but often used incorrectly. The machine doesn’t know the difference.)
- Finally, if you are writing for the web, make sure the copy has enough breaks in it. As noted above, readers tend to skim more when reading online, so if the copy is in blocks that aren’t easily skimmed, break it up a bit.
Proofreading a piece before publishing allows you to put your best work forward, so carve just a little bit of time out to do it correctly—your audience will thank you for it.