Proofreading your own work can be tricky. It’s difficult to see errors in your own writing – especially when you’ve given hours of your life and buckets of blood, sweat and tears to meet your deadline – and often hard to take a clinical look at your creations.
Here are ten tips to help you keep focused when proofreading your own work
1. Let it marinade
Yep, like a good ragu, any piece of writing must have time to marinade. The words need to get to know each other and the syntax needs to settle before you do a final check on the accuracy of your grammar and spelling.
Leave your work for a good few hours (days, preferably, if you have them) so that your mind is fresh when you look at it again. It’s particularly difficult to find errors in your own work so you need to give your brain time to flip between writing, editing and proofreading mode.
2. Edit it first
There’s no point proofreading something unless you’re happy with the content. Make sure you’ve done a full edit – marinading between writing and editing, too – before you embark on checking the technical stuff.
When you’re editing, you’re looking at the flow of words, tone of voice and clarity of arguments, opinions or characters. You’re not checking for typos or misplaced commas. If your words aren’t what you want them to be, your proofreading eyes will be distracted by misbehaving copy and you’ll miss the corrections you need to make.
3. Define your style
Set up a style guide for your work so it’s consistent. If you’re a student or freelance writer, your college/uni or client might provide one. Learn it and stick to it. If you’re doing your own thing, it’s still important to decide how you’re going to write.
There two ways easy ways to do this:
- Write your style guide first – set out the style you’re going to use before you start working and use it as you write. Refer back to it during your proofreading to make sure everything complies.
- Produce a proofing grid as you go – when you start proofreading, get a separate piece of paper and draw a grid separated into categories (names, numbers etc). Note down styles as you proof your copy and make sure that subsequent uses of that word, name or number match up with the first instance when it appeared. That way, everything will be consistent from start to finish.
Things to include in your style guide are:
- Number layouts (everything over 1,000 having a comma)
- Words or symbols (per cent or %)
- Hyphens (wellbeing or well-being)
- Contractions or full words (it’s or it is)
- Names (particularly for academic work, make sure you get the spelling right from the start).
4. Print your manuscript out
Please, please, please do not proofread electronically. It’s awful. Your eyes will be strained, it’s difficult to read, Word will distract you with red or green squiggly lines under everything (or encourage you to use US English rules instead of UK ones – we don’t use ‘z’ over here!).
Print out your work so you can see it. Go for double spacing or a larger font when you’re proofreading if that’s easier for you. You need space to see, and to scribble your notes in margins. It’s also handy to have a record of your corrections if you’re trying to keep track of amends or need to check back in future.
5. Use a red pen
If you’re proofing black copy, it’s no good using a black pen. Blue’s OK but it can be easily overlooked and green is just waiting to be lost amongst the typeface.
Red is bold, bright and brilliantly eye-catching. You’ll see all of your amends and be clear on how you’re going to finalise your copy. (P.S. tick off the amends as you make them on your final document so you know you’ve done them all.)
6. If in doubt, check it out
There’s no shame in using a dictionary. The English language is notoriously complex when it comes to spelling rules so it’s fine to check before making an amend or overlooking something that you’re not sure on.
Sometimes spellings can completely escape you – the word “intricate” fell out of my brain the other day and I had to look it up to be sure it was even a real word.
Online dictionaries – this one’s my favourite – can be kept open on your browser when you’re writing (not proofreading though as you’ll do that in print, remember, but you can nip back to your laptop to check during a proofing session), or you could always go completely old school by having a hard copy of the OED on your desk.
7. Slow down
Proofreading is not speed reading. You need to take your time. When you’re editing or reading a piece of work, you read at your average speed and take in all of the nuances of the writing at pace.
When you proofread, you must slow down. You’re looking for technical details: punctuation; spelling; grammatical rules. You can’t find these if you read at your usual pace. Take a sentence at a time, even reading aloud if that helps you to see each letter and punctuation mark more clearly. Always build in the time to proof properly so you can approach it at the right speed.
8. Check the page layout
Editing and proofreading will play havoc with the layout of electronic documents. You might start at the beginning and work your way through in order but every now and again you’ll need to go back or forward to make a correction, which can knock your layout out of whack.
When you’ve finished making your corrections, go back to the start of your document. Tab down through each page and make sure your paragraphs and section headers are in synch. There’s nothing worse than a widowed section header on the bottom of one page followed by the content of that section on the next.
9. Check your bits and bobs
Your last job as a proofreader is to check everything adds up. You might have a contents list at the beginning of the document that no longer bears any resemblance to what’s in the document, as you’ve moved things around during your edit and proofread.
If you’re working on a formal report, check all of the paragraphs are numbered correctly and in order, and that appendices, captions and statistics are properly labelled and/or sourced. References are a biggy, especially for the students amongst you who will be marked on your technique.
Be consistent (whack your references into the proofreading grid or style guide at the start if it helps), and make sure the reference you note in the body of your work matches what you have in your bibliography.
Check that page numbers correspond, your word count is noted accurately (again, usually one for the students but freelances might have to provide this, too) and your title page is in ship shape.
10. And, finally…
You’re almost done. It’s been a long journey – researching, writing, editing and proofreading – to craft your masterpiece but you’re now at the end.
And, we’re going full circle back to the beginning: marinading. Honestly, this is the key to your proofreading success. Complete all of the your corrections then put the kettle on, read a book, go for a swim or have a nap (do all of them if you wish). Take some time away then come back to do one final read through.
Here, you’re looking for noticeable layout issues (widowed section headers, stray paragraphs, inconsistent spacing) and anything else that affects your rereading of the piece.
Do not re-edit at this stage. You’ve done that. Trust the decisions you made during the editing phase and sign off your work with pride.
Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Following these ten steps should give you the structure and discipline to proofread your own work with an objective eye and methodical approach.
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.