All right! [Did you notice that was two words? Just couldn’t resist the opportunity to get that little point in…] You’ve earned your badges [Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!] for Revision and Editing, Steps 1 and 2 in the Writing Revision Process. Now comes the easy part—Step 3: Proofreading!
That is, it’s easy if you’re anal about detail, like me. [I just checked, and “like me” is correct, although if I were being formal I might have written, “If you are as anal about detail as I am.” Then again, I’d probably have to ditch “anal”…] If you have ADHD or dyslexia like some members of my family, you might prefer sticking pins in your eyes to proofreading. [I am in a mood today! Maybe I should write all my posts in the afternoon early in the week, rather than cramming them at the last minute late at night!]
You can still learn to proofread, and do it well. (And you might even learn not to hate it so much.) I actually like it. But you already know I think a hot date is reading to each other from the dictionary.
Back to that #$%! House
Remember that house we’ve been renovating? It should damn well be finished by now, shouldn’t it? Well, after this post, it will be ready for a visit from HGTV. Step 1 in the house reno process meant making major structural changes. Step 2 involved doing the interior finishing work. Step 3 entails sending in the cleaning crew.
In writing, Step 1: Revise meant assessing content and meaning—making sure you said what you meant to say. Step 2: Edit involved language issues in sentences and paragraphs—making sure you said what you meant to say the way you intended to (and should) say it. Step 3: Proofread deals with word issues—cleaning up errors in words and punctuation.
Proofreading is that final step before you’re finished. It’s easy to talk yourself into skipping it: You’re in a hurry to finish. You’re tired. “It’s not that important. A little typo here or there—who’s gonna care?” [I hate “gonna”!]
Let me answer with a roar—EVERYONE! People who don’t proofread delude themselves into thinking it’s not important; however, those who DO take the time and expend the energy know that proofreading is NOT optional.
Yes, mistakes slip through occasionally in the best writing. But errors should be the exception to the rule, not an everyday occurrence. When my readers catch one, they should gasp and say, “Oh my God—a typo! I hope Susan hasn’t caught some exotic eye infection!”
Why You Should Care
Typos distract readers from your content. Punctuation errors make the reader cycle back to reread sentences for clarity; continuity is lost. When you use the wrong words, your voice becomes clouded. Frequent errors cause the reader to question your authority, discount your claims, and question your judgment.
I recently bought a book self-published by a former detective. His stories about police investigations started out interestingly enough, but became less so as I struggled through pages drowning in spelling, punctuation, and usage errors, incorrect word choices, and run-on sentences and fragments that interfered with both the story flow and my understanding of his narrative.
A good proofreader would have sent the book back for not only proofreading, but editing. Although you wouldn’t think the quality of an author’s writing skills would have any bearing on readers’ assessment of his job performance, they most definitely did here. Failure to proofread demonstrated this writer’s poor observation skills, inattention to detail, and unwillingness to submit his ideas to scrutiny—traits that don’t inspire confidence in a detective. I found myself not trusting him as an authority; I second-guessed each decision he reported making.
“We’ll return to our program after this commercial break…”
Sherry: Who’s in the powder room?
Dave: My mom. She was excited to see the renovations. I told her about the waterfall sink.
Sherry: What?! No!! She can’t use the powder room yet! The workers just finished installing everything. I haven’t cleaned the toilet!
Dave: OMG, Honey…she’ll think you’re a pig…Hey, what’s that in your hand? Is that my manuscript?
Sherry: Yes. I wanted to surprise you. I sent a copy to that publisher my brother knows.
Dave: What?! No!! He can’t read my manuscript yet! I just finished editing everything. I haven’t proofread!
Sherry: OMG, Honey…
“Now back to our show…”
Before leaving the house to go out for the evening, most of us steal a glance in the mirror. A routine—brushing our hair, checking makeup or adjusting a tie—ensures we look our best. Similarly, proofreading makes your writing presentable. Develop a routine so you feel confident your writing is the best it can be.
- You deserve a break today! Give yourself (and your writing) a break. Don’t proofread after a long session of writing or editing. Put your writing aside for at least an hour (preferably until the next day) and have at it when you’re rested, with fresh eyes and a slay-the-beast attitude.
- I spellcheck! Make friends with your spelling and grammar checker. It won’t find every error, but it will find lots—and many you wouldn’t find on your own. I’m an expert speller, but it caught me up on fuchsia. I’m so used to ignoring those squiggly lines, it took my proofreader to catch my error.
If you use Word, learn how to set the checker so it catches what you want it to catch. I’ll devote a blog post to this soon.
- Choose paper, not plastic. Proofread from a hard (paper) copy, rather than onscreen. You’ll catch more errors that way. I don’t know why, but I can read something ten times onscreen, but as soon as I print it out, I see more mistakes.
It also helps many people to look at one line at a time, physically blocking out other lines with a ruler or another piece of paper. This keeps your eyes where they need to be, rather than tempting them to roam ahead to something more interesting.
- Read aloud. No one ever wants to do this, but it’s amazing how well it works to catch errors. It also is great at pointing out lousy sentence structure. When we hear bad sentences, we tend to stumble over them. Needing to stop and start again is your clue that a sentence needs reworking.
- Take turns. Proofread for one type of issue at a time. It’s self-defeating to try to find all the errors in one pass. You’ll miss too much. Instead, read through several times, looking for one or two types of problems each time. This order works well for me:
- fragments/comma splices/run-ons
- run spellcheck/grammar check—you can fix errors as you write, but read through again here in case you missed fixing anything
- check for homonyms that spellcheck might have missed—e.g., did spellcheck keep “threw” when it should have been “through”?
- missing words/wrong words—i.e., is any sentence missing a word/is any word in a sentence incorrect ?
- contractions, apostrophes, hyphens, dashes—use an em dash between words; use an en dash between numbers
- numbers, tables—have you used numerals correctly or written out numbers as words where required?
- titles, subtitles, notes, citations—make sure names are capitalized and spelled correctly; make sure titles are formatted consistently
- sentence punctuation
- special fonts—make sure these are consistently displayed
- formatting, alignment, bullets, numbering
- spacing—run a check for errant spaces. In the menu bar, choose Edit—Find—Replace. In the first box, type 2 spaces. Where it says, “Replace with,” type 1 space. Word will highlight each place in your document where you accidentally typed 2 spaces instead of 1. You can fix each place yourself or let Word do it by clicking “Replace All.
”Similarly, you can check for “no spaces.” In the box, type “.A” (no quotation marks). Word will find any instance where you ended a sentence and then started a new one but forgot to add a space. You’ll then have to repeat searches with “.B,” “.C,” etc. to cover any letter with which you might have started a sentence.
- page numbers—particularly if you made changes, did your page numbers update correctly?
- headers, footers—is everything spelled and aligned correctly?
- Make a list. Make a proofreading checklist of the items you know tend to be problems for you. For example, if you know you have a problem with there/their/they’re, put it on your list. If you always stress about where to put commas, add it to your list. Double-check these items.
- Go back. Read your paper backward, word by word, to check spelling of each word. Reading backward forces you to concentrate on each word.
- Let’s do it again! Run spellcheck/grammar check again.
- Buddy up! Ask someone else to proofread your work. I am a professional writer, editor, and proofreader, yet I always have someone edit and proofread my work before I publish. Besides saving me from eternal shame, my proofreader adds value to my writing by pointing out connections I hadn’t noticed, suggesting alternate words, and axing phrases I had been vacillating about! She’s my new BFF!
You did it! You’ve mastered Revision: Revise, Edit, Proofread! Congratulations. Your writing will be so much better for it, and your readers will be fans for life.
If you need to check any rules, you can always Google your question, but here are some good general sources:
- Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips
- Purdue Online Writing Lab: General Writing Resources
- Oxford Dictionaries: Better Writing
If you have any questions about this post, be sure to ask in the comments section below.