The Basics of Good Proofreading

The Basics of Good Proofreading
Updated on 4 January 2016

After you finish writing something, do you read it over? Hopefully yes, but reading is not proofreading. The process of reading for enjoyment or information is significantly different from the process of proofreading. How so? To proofread is to examine a document with the express purpose of finding and correcting errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Let’s compare and contrast reading and proofreading. By doing so, you will learn how to make the most of a proofreading session.

Read aloud. Most people don’t read aloud unless they are reading for an audience. When you proofread, the audience is yourself. Hearing the words of your manuscript will help you detect errors that you may unintentionally skim over with your eyes. Research indicates that our brain understands familiar words rapidly without needing the input of individual letters. To test this theory yourself, read the following passage:

I cnduo’t bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Unisg the icndeblire pweor of the hmuan mnid, aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm. Tihs is bucseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey ltteer by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Aaznmig, huh? Yaeh and I awlyas tghhuot slelinpg was ipmorantt! See if yuor fdreins can raed tihs too.

Were you able to read it fairly easily? Your brain has a tendency to organize text. Your brain is even better at this skill when you are the author of the work you’re reading, because it knows what ideas you are trying to convey. Other than reading aloud, how can you slow your mind down and force it to attend the details more closely?

Read backward. When you read normally, from beginning to end, you mentally connect thoughts to understand context. However, not understanding context is beneficial in the proofreading process. You can focus on each word and sentence without the distraction of context. When forced to examine words separately, it’s easier to see grammar issues and misspellings.

Read multiple times. You might discover that you find at least a couple of errors each time you review. Some proofreaders suggest proofreading for one type of mistake at a time. In other words, you might read first with the objective of fixing run-on sentences. Next, you would check the document for spelling, especially of names and technical terms. Consult a dictionary to make sure you are using unfamiliar terms correctly. Check for your common weaknesses, mistakes you regularly find in your writing. If you change something, scan the whole paragraph again. Writers often make mistakes when they adjust portions of a manuscript at the last minute. For instance, if they change the tense of one sentence, they have to make sure it fits with all the other sentences in the paragraph. Also, they need to watch out for subject-verb agreement and pluralization when they edit. To avoid this issue, proofread after every change and keep proofreading until you make at least one review that doesn’t result in any corrections.

Read it tomorrow. Some authors like to review text first thing in the morning or whenever they are most alert. Proofreading with a fresh mind is most effective. If your deadline doesn’t permit you to schedule an entire day between writing and proofreading, allow as much time as you can between tasks. Take a short break and do another activity. When you return, your mind will be ready to work. Once you do settle in to proofread, try to minimize distractions. If you simply don’t have time to go back over your work, it’s not cheating to ask a friend to lend a hand. Whom should you choose? The best choice is someone in the target audience. For example, if you are writing an article geared toward working professionals, ask a business associate to provide a fresh eye.

Read everything. Don’t limit your proofreading to the body of the text. It’s important to make sure titles, captions, and footnotes are error-free. If you have numbered lists, make sure the numbers are in sequence and that you haven’t omitted any. Check the formatting of margins and paragraphs.

Can you see how different reading is from proofreading? When you proofread, your focus isn’t entertainment or education. You want your document to be accurate and free of grammatical, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. So, read every word of your manuscript multiple times. Try to isolate words and phrases by reading it backward. Give your brain time to reboot between writing and proofreading activities. Applying this advice will result in better manuscripts and your readers will appreciate your efforts.

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