Proofreading 101

Little boy having trouble spellingProofreading is the final stage in the Writing Cycle. It seems like it should be the easiest of the six stages – just read through a document and be sure you haven’t made a complete fool of yourself. Yet we can all find numerous examples of the foolhardy, in ourselves as well as others, particularly online.

What could have possibly gone wrong? Perhaps one of the following elements simply didn’t fall into place. So here are a few handy reminders to check the next time you sense that the dunce’s cap might be forthcoming:

1) How large is your computer screen? If you’re working with a small screen, it’s hard to see the words. iPads might be portable, but they’re not easy to read, especially when the fine details are the subject of the work. Compensate by increasing the size of the font and maximizing your work on the screen.

There’s been some debate about color for, oh, about the last 30 years. I was taught in graduate school not to use red pen. It hurts the students’ feelings. Pencil gives them space to recover. Recently I came across an article on the internet (which I’m now sorry I didn’t bookmark) suggesting that the use of olive green in an office environment greatly decreased the effectiveness of editorial feedback. The revival of the “red pen” reversed the downward trend.

Whatever your opinion on the use of color, you need some system in place to determine what you’ve read and what you haven’t, what you’ve changed and what has remained the same. And you should be able to see it clearly.

2) How clean is your workspace? A dirty screen is hard to read. Use a moist towelette to clean it at least once a week if not more often. And dust your keyboard with canned air to blow out any specks that might have accumulated there. A sticky key won’t type, even if you’ve made the correction.

What about your desk? Not to nitpick here, but stacks of unread files can cause anxiety, especially when they’re looming over your shoulder, large potent reminders of the other projects necessitating your attention. Bright shiny magazines and unopened mail can be more tempting than the spacing, commas, and periods in the literature referenced section at the end of a long journal article.

Before you start a proofreading project, make an executive decision. Does your office need a 10-minute tidy-up? Can you box a few items, turn some things over, run a paper towel across the desk, and proceed? Or should you reserve a conference room for 45 minutes and leave? Because the last thing you need is an afternoon spent spring cleaning with no document to show at its close.

3) How many computer programs do you have open? And along with that, how many sounds are you being subjected to? We’re all being forced to multi-task these days, despite the growing body of evidence proving how bad it is for us and our jobs. Proofreading is one of those tasks that simply cannot be done while you check your email, sit in on a conference call, or play solitaire. Close (don’t minimize) the other windows on your computer screen. (That includes Skype, folks).

Turn off (yes, I said it) the cell phone. This is not the time or the place to enter into a diatribe about the cell phone. But writers and editors take heed. You should already have tools in place on your phone to prioritize the vital from the important from the crap. And part of your daily work routine should be to set your cell phone to vital only – proofreading is one of those times.

Finally, if you work in a busy office, or if you do lots of work outside the office in other noisy environments (like the soccer field, the commuter train, the airport, your living room filled with teenage girls at a slumber party), put a white noise system into place. Mine is iTunes and loud, heavy punk rock – The Hives, The Clash, The Ramones, The Exploited. (I know some people say lyrics interfere with editing, but if I turn those bands up loud enough I can’t really hear the lyrics anyway, especially The Exploited.) Maybe you’re more of a Vivaldi person. Whatever.

4) What tools do you have at your disposal? Yes, I know, everyone’s using track changes, and we’ve all benefited so greatly from that invention, thank you very much Mr. Gates.

Facetious attitude aside, beyond the mechanics of the document itself which we touched upon in item number 1, what tools are you using to aid in the process of proofreading? After all, I haven’t stored the entire range of the English language and all of the topics it is capable of expressing neatly within my tiny little skull, have you?

I use books. And I suggest you do the same. (It saves head space for things like singing the lyrics along with The Sex Pistols.) Dictionaries help us to check the meanings of words we do not know. Encyclopedias help with names, dates, and places. Usage manuals tell us if a word is being used correctly, such as that or which. Style guides tell us where the margins should go. Grammar handbooks explain things like comma rules. Some of these are available online, sometimes for free. Most are not. And the ones that are often need to be double-checked.

Goodness knows, I’m subject to wearing the foolscap as often as anyone else. Many thanks to all of the patient readers who have pointed out my mistakes and patiently borne with me as I attempt to muddle my way through this language thing together with you. You are so much appreciated!


  1. I absolutely LOVE this post, Michelle!

  2. One further tip you might consider adding: break the job into small parcels. In my view, it is a very intense job, and after a while you start to glaze a little and read what you think is there, what you meant to write, not what you actually did. There are some example texts on the web that at first sight seem incomprehensible, but when you cotton on, you can actually read them. I think you can only succeed for so long without a break.

    • Ian, you’re absolutely right. Some experts suggest that we can only handle major tasks for 90-minute cycles before we’re too fatigued to continue effectively. I teach a class in time management for writers based on this principle, and it’s one that I employ in my own work as well.

  3. A very useful method of proofreading, which I learned when I started out doing copyeditingyears ago, is to read from the bottom up. That is, read the last sentence of your aticle, then the sentence before that, and the sentence before that.

    The reason for this is that when you read article the normal way, from top to bottom, the article (hopefully) makes and you know what it is supposed to say. Sometimes your brain unconsciously corrects mistakes so that you see the words written correctly in your mind – even if they are wrong. When you read sentences from bottom to top, you are looking at individual sentences, your brain is not trying to put together a “story”.

    This is also why it helps to have another person proofread, if you can. Since you know what you meant to write, your brain can trick you into thinking that you actually have written it, even if you haven’t.

  4. These weren’t the kind of proofreading tips I was expecting at all, Michelle — and that’s what makes this post a refreshing change. I don’t usually think of things like turning off the phone, eliminating distractions, and cleaning the keyboard to free up sticky keys.

    My favorite writers always seem to advise setting aside a certain time each day just to write, and keeping that time sacred.

    • Note that I misspelled my own first name in the above comment.

      Proofreading Tip #1: Never hit “enter,” “publish,” or “reply” until you’ve proofread every letter! 😉

    • You know Michelle I tend to stress the mechanics because I work with a lot of people who aren’t “born” or “intuitive” writers. I find that if they start there, the whole process seems less mystical. It’s surprising to me how many people have trouble with the basics, like keyboarding. It’s tough to be a fluent writer if you don’t type well. So I teach them to write it out by hand or dictate into a voice recorder and then type it later. Those are the things that can stand in the way of someone who could otherwise be a proficient writer.

  5. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that proofreading your own copy is like checking for close dates in a cheese case…it’s always better to have more than two eyes on the subject at all times! 😉 My mother was a professional proofreader for Mack Printing (technical trade journals) and several places in DC in the 50s…then an undergraduate English secretary at UMASS/Amherst, where she also typed and formatted professors’ vitae and manuscripts. She was my best proofreader when I was younger…now I find that I am able to spot the typos in books I read. So back to the more eyes the better! And NEVER rely on spell-check!

  6. Bill (Doc) Roberts says

    I use a program called READ PLEASE It sure helps.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.