Proofreading is a difficult art when you’re trying to check your own writing. John Espirian helps you correct and improve your work.
This article was published originally in Communicator (Autumn 2016). Communicator is the authoritative, award winning, journal for UK technical communicators. It is home to high quality, objective, and peer-reviewed features – current, relevant, and in-depth.
The top 10 proofreading tips
- Never rely on a spellchecker
- Be clear
- Use printouts (and plant trees)
- Read your content backwards
- Read out loud
- Proofread in the morning
- Break up the task
- Phone a friend
- Don’t chase perfection
- Call in the professionals
All technical communicators strive for accuracy, clarity and concision. This isn’t always easy to achieve, and it’s common for the first draft of any piece of writing to need substantial revision before it’s ready to make the grade. The processes of editing and proofreading help to improve that first draft and move the work on to completion. But if there isn’t the time or budget to use the services of a professional editor or proofreader, the job will usually be left up to the writer. This makes for a difficult task: how can you proofread something that you’ve written yourself? This article sets out some tips for proofreading your own work. Follow this advice and see how many errors you’re able to eliminate from your copy.
Tip 1. Never rely on a spellchecker
A spellcheck alone is rarely enough. Spellcheckers obviously have their place but they won’t catch every mistake. Even when words are spelled correctly, they’re often used incorrectly. Compare these statements:
- We have an envious track record.
- We have an enviable track record.
The spellchecker skips right through and says everything’s fine. But wait: the first sentence doesn’t convey the right meaning (hey, trust us, even though we’re jealous of everyone else!). Knowing that such issues exist is one thing; finding and fixing them is quite another. But that’s what the remaining tips are about, so don’t give up.
Tip 2. Be clear
Keep your target audience in mind. Will they understand your writing? Get these basics right:
- Clarity: make clear statements
- Simplicity: eliminate jargon where possible
- Tone: use appropriate language.
Tip 3. Use printouts (and plant trees)
My least environmentally friendly tip is to proofread a printout of your work. For some people, it’s easier to spot errors on paper than on a screen. If you’ve ever written a letter in Microsoft Word and then seen something wrong with it after it was printed, you’ll know what I mean.
If you can, add some space between the lines of text and choose a typeface that’s easy on the eye. I prefer sans-serif typefaces, but it’s really all down to personal preference.
Remember also to print on both sides of the paper.
Tip 4. Read your content backwards
Altering your reading pattern can help you spot oddities and mistakes in your text. Reading backwards can be slow going at first, but you’ll soon speed up. Persevere and the rewards will come.
Backwards content your read.
(If it helps, imagine you’re Yoda. Mistakes more spot will you.)
Tip 5. Read out loud
Saying your words out loud often helps reveal the statements most likely to cause confusion among readers. If a sentence sounds clumsy when you say it to yourself, imagine what someone else might make of it. Do some rewording and make life easier for your audience.
Bonus tip: get your Mac to do the speaking.
Did you know that Macs can easily speak text selections out loud? See my blog post Speaking text on your Mac.
Tip 6. Proofread in the morning
Or whenever your brain is at its most alert. Set aside some quiet time and get your checks done when you’re ready to concentrate.
If that’s not possible, do at least try not to check everything in a single sitting. A good night’s sleep and a fresh start may reveal several errors you’d previously missed.
Tip 7. Break up the task
Read your content multiple times, each time looking for different types of issue. Here’s an example:
- Reading 1: focus only on spelling
- Reading 2: focus only on grammar
- Reading 3: focus only on headings.
The more you break things down, the easier each reading becomes. This approach is great for improving the consistency of your writing.
Be wary of re-reading your work too many times, though. Taking long breaks in between sittings can help you avoid ‘word blindness’.
Tip 8. Phone a friend
Ask a colleague or a trusted friend to go through your document in as much detail as possible. Request specific feedback: what was good or bad about the content? Accept any comments with good grace and think about how you can make your writing clearer.
Tip 9. Don’t chase perfection
Don’t expect to spot every single error in your work. Don’t get hung up about it either.
There are diminishing returns in re-reading your work dozens of times. If your meaning is clear, that may well be good enough.
Remember that time is precious.
Tip 10. Call in the professionals
If you’ve followed the other tips in this article, perhaps you’ve already fixed some errors in your work. If so, well done: each correction is a small victory.
To ensure that your text is the best it can be, consider hiring an editorial professional. The Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) Directory of Editorial Services lists hundreds of editors and proofreaders who can help you get your words in shape.
Espirian J (2016) ‘Speaking text on your Mac’ http://espirian.co.uk/speaking-text-on-your-mac (accessed July 2016)
Sans-serif https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sans-serif (accessed July 2016)
SfEP (2006) ‘What does a proofreader do?’ Communicator, Summer 2006: 46
Society for editors and proofreaders (SfEP)
Directory of Editorial Services
www.sfep.org.uk/directory (accessed July 2016)
John Espirian MISTC is a freelance technical writer with more than 15 years of experience in IT and the web. His services include copywriting, screencasting and editing. John is the internet director of the SfEP, the South Wales area group organiser for the ISTC, and a Pro member of the Professional Copywriters’ Network (PCN).