We’ve all been in Mr. Holton's shoes: you finish a piece of writing only to find a mistake or typo that you didn’t see before. It happens even though you’ve read your text a million times. And once you see the mistake, it looks so obvious. How did you miss it?
Fortunately, there’s a group of people who spend a lot of time looking for and catching these mistakes: copyeditors.* As a group, we may have a reputation for nitpickery, but we still have some tricks up our collective sleeve that you can apply to your everyday writing, from emails to print materials, websites to resumes.
In a world of texts and tweets, is proofreading still important? You bet. “Unnecessary errors diminish trust and credibility, so mistakes in professional copy are costly,” Stan Carey, a professional editor and proofreader with his own blog on language, told me in an interview. Sloppy writing makes people wonder what else you’re messing up on. If that isn’t enough motivation for you, know that proper writing helps Google identify “trustworthy” websites, which in turn boosts your search engine ranking.
If you’ve experienced too many of those “D’oh” moments with your writing, take to heart some of these proofreading tips from the pros:
1. Your brain is not designed to proofread
First, it’s important to understand why proofreading can be so hard. One reason is that proofreading takes time and attention, two things that are in short supply these days. In a world of instant communication and quick deadlines, it’s often difficult to give a piece the time it needs.
The second reason has to do with how the human brain works. When we read, our brain is trained to scan words quickly and pick up their meaning without actually looking closely. On the one hand, this is a huge advantage in day-to-day life. On the other, it means that we can gloss over mistakes without even noticing them. This is especially true when you read your own work.
2. Make yourself read every. single. word.
This may sound obvious, but hear me out. Because of the way our brains work, chances are you’re not actually looking at each word on the page. “The key to proofreading your own writing is to force yourself to see what’s really there and not what your brain assumes is there,” Dawn McIlvain Stahl told me over email. Dawn is the online editor at Copyediting.com. “Make the font obnoxiously large so your eyes can focus on only a few words at a time,” she suggests. “Change the font to one you’re not used to. Read phrases and sentences word for word—and backwards.” Anything you can do to break out of your normal reading mode will help.
3. Look at your piece with fresh eyes
Because you’re trying to trick your brain into reading something like it’s unfamiliar, give yourself some time away from it. “Don’t proofread something just after writing it,” says Stan Carey. “Take a break from it, the longer the better, to create the distance necessary to spot mistakes.” Come back in an hour, or ideally the next day.
4. Enlist a friend to proofread
New readers don’t have to trick their brains—they’ve never seen your piece before so they are more likely to pick up on the little things that you're skipping. Don’t pick someone who’s as equally steeped in the topic as you are, since they are just as likely to start skimming. Instead, pick someone who is not familiar with the material. It also helps, obviously, to pick someone who knows how to write well. Take advantage of that eagle-eyed friend or co-worker who enjoys finding misspelled street signs or awkward typos in wedding invitations.
5. If you see a mistake, root it out everywhere before moving on
If you catch an instance of “website” spelled as “web site,” chances are it’s happened more than once. Stop what you’re doing and do a search through your document for that particular error (Ctl+F or Command+F “web site”), then fix each instance of it right away. Don’t assume you’ll remember to fix it the next time you see it, because you might not see it. Once you fix it everywhere, pick up back where you left off.
This is also a time to learn your favorite mistakes and hunt them down. If you know that you tend to type “defiantly” when you mean “definitely,” be sure to look specifically for those mistakes.
6. Quadruple-check name spelling
A word won’t be offended if you misspell it. Not always true with a person. So be courteous and focus your attention on names. Unfamiliar names are easy to mess up, because your brain doesn’t notice if they’re spelled incorrectly (approximately 14-16% of corrections in major newspapers are misspelled names). Common names with uncommon spellings (Dwyane Wade, anyone?) can also cause major headaches for proofreaders. When in doubt, the easiest thing to do is just copy-and-paste the name from the person’s official website directly into your text.
7. Be careful with tracked changes
Many errors appear when people are tracking their changes, either in a Word document or using the “Suggesting” feature in Google Docs. Tracked changes often introduce missing spaces, redundant punctuation, missing words, or other problems that aren’t visible at first glance. So once you accept people’s changes, be sure to give them a close read-through.
8. Look for mistakes, but also consistency
Inconsistencies can be just as glaring as errors. For example, I see a lot of pieces that switch back and forth between “%” and “percent” or “5” and “five.” There’s no carved-in-stone way to do things, but make sure you pick a convention and stick with it. If one of your captions has a period at the end, make sure they all do. If one header is capitalized, make sure they all are. “Copyeditors are constantly correcting inconsistencies,” says Dawn, and these can “send the message that you’re not very careful or professional.”
To ensure consistency with formatting, I recommend looking over your piece, going style type by style type. In other words, check all your headings at the same time, then check all your captions, then check all your bulleted lists. That way you’re less likely to skip something.
9. Get a style guide
They look intimidating, but having a style guide and sticking with it will save you a ton of time. Why? Because it takes some of the thinking out of it. For example, on this blog we use “ecommerce” as opposed to “e-commerce.” Both are correct, but having it written in our style guide means that I can refer to it quickly and stay consistent from one post to another. Style guides are also helpful for the everyday head-scratchers like further vs. farther.
You don’t have to come up with a guide from scratch. I personally like the Chicago Manual of Style because it’s thorough while also sympathetic to the demands of everyday usage. If you don’t want to pay for a style guide (a CMS online subscription is $35/year), there are many free online resources like Chicago Manual forums and Q&As and Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl tips. "If you're uncertain about any aspect of punctuation, read up on it," advises Stan.
10. Know your limits
If attention to detail really isn’t your thing, consider hiring a professional. That way you can save some time and have peace of mind. Working with a pro can also be a great learning experience: “Reviewing a piece of your writing that has been professionally edited or proofread will give you a great idea of the kinds of things to watch for when you’re going it alone,” says Dawn. “Once you’ve seen the errors a professional editor or proofreader catches, it becomes hard not to see and correct them yourself.”
11. Spread good proofreading karma
Last but not least, if you see a typo in someone else’s work, just tell the person nicely without turning it into a “gotcha” moment. No one likes that co-worker or colleague who is gleefully pointing out errors. We’ve all been there, so be nice. (I myself am dreading the typo that someone will find in this piece…oh the irony!)
And if you’re the one who made the mistake, take a deep breath, own up to it, and correct it quickly. “Expressing simple, sincere thanks that the error was brought to your attention and regret that it was made in the first place is usually a good idea; publicly arguing or groveling is not,” Dawn wisely advises.
Thanks to Dawn and Stan for sharing some of their tips with me. Any other strategies you use to proofread your own work?
* You're right, I'm using "copyedit" and "proofread" interchangeably here, even though there are some subtle differences between the two.
Content Editor at Jimdo
Maggie joined the team to craft the voice of Jimdo for all products and marketing channels. In her previous work, she edited for organizations covering the environment, cities, and sustainable business. When she's not adding serial commas, you can find her camping with her husband, cooking, and reading New Scientist.