14 ways to proofread your copy

There seems to be an annoying little gremlin that delights in creeping into your copy and adding mistakes in the hope that you won’t notice. And you can’t trust spell-cheque [sic].

Years ago, I was tasked to write a ‘romantic’ jewellery leaflet. I wrote the headings in French but then went on holiday only to find the typesetter had introduced 20 errors. I only found out when I received a letter from a teacher who’d used the leaflet in her French class.

More recently, I reviewed a 110-page website and produced a report totalling over 9,000 words. Instead of copying-and-pasting my new copy, the client rekeyed some of it and introduced a whole load of new errors. I had to check everything again, and the next site review was another 3,000 words.

Here are various ways to double-check that everything is OK before you publish your carefully crafted text:

1. Leave enough time

In addition to writing time, allow dedicated time for proofreading, editing and rewriting. The best work goes through several iterations before it’s finished.

2. Sleep on it and read your work again the next day

You’ll be amazed what you find when you look at it again with fresh eyes.

3. Read it aloud

This is a good tip anyway, as it ensures your wording flows as well as it should.

4. Read each line backwards

By reading backwards, you lose the sense of the text and check it word-by-word instead.

5. Get a friend to read it aloud while you check the text

I used to use this technique when I worked in an insurance company. We had to ‘call over’ whole tables of figures to each other, to make sure there were no errors. For example, this paragraph would start: “Number five full-stop space capital g get a friend to read it…”

6. Read it really s-l-o-w-l-y

Don’t rush. Proofreading properly takes time.

7. Take regular breaks so you are always reading with fresh eyes

It’s easy to get tired when proofreading, so do it in short chunks of time interspersed with some other activity.

8. Ensure no interruptions so you can concentrate

Find a quiet place where you can focus on the job. It’s impossible to proofread well with the radio blaring in the background, ringing phones or colleagues distracting you with questions.

9. Never proofread your own work

If you wrote the text yourself, you see what you expect to be there rather than what is actually there. If possible, ask someone else to read it for you.

10. Print it out

Screens shine light into your eyes while ink on paper is light reflected off the page. That’s why your eye muscles get more tired more easily reading on screen, and it’s therefore easier to miss mistakes.

11. Reformat the document and read it as plain text

If you are proofreading text in place on a layout, such as a PDF document, some errors may be harder to spot. Save the file in another format, such as a Word or plain text file, and mistakes are more likely to become obvious.

12. Have one person proofread it, make the changes, then have another person proofread it again

For projects that are really important to get right, it’s worth having the job proofread more than once, including by at least one person who’s never seen the text before.

13. Check house style is consistent

Proofreading is not just about spelling and grammar. You also want to watch out for consistency of details such as names e.g. Mr John Smith or John Smith or J Smith, and UK/US variations e.g. organisation or organization.

14. Check page numbering, contents page, headlines, pull quotes and picture captions

The body text is not the only thing to check. It’s easy to miss things in margins and graphics so do a separate check to ensure they are accurate, make sense, and appear in the right place. For example, I worked on a newsletter that went through five stages. It was fine but a picture was accidentally switched on the artwork. Also, I edited a brochure that was repaginated at the last minute to include an extra page, so the images no longer made sense with the copy.

It’s easily to make mistakes. But it’s also easy to get it right! I hope the above tips will help you avoid that embarrassment. Or is it embarassment? *Goes off to check.

I originally wrote this article for Fresh Business Thinking

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