In my version of paradise, every writer has an editor – a colleague with a trusted eye for catching grammar, style and design flubs and an unfailing instinct for knowing what you meant to say. This person would review and polish all your content before it went out to the critical public. This person would also be available at a moment’s notice to edit your copy in the same time it takes to get a hot pizza to your door.
Now look at your list of contacts – do you have an editor you can turn to in your professional network? If so, count yourself blessed and go take him or her out to lunch. (I like French food, by the way.)
The rest of you might want to stick around.
As a professional editor, I’m aware that a lot of people who need editorial help don’t have access to it or the time to wait for it. I know this unscientifically from the number of people I meet who say, “You’re an editor? Can you read my book/article/blog and tell me what you think?” And from colleagues who say, “I know I should have sent this to you for editing, but I didn’t want to call you at 2 AM.” That’s one of the risks of workshifting – sometimes you’re performing without a net.
So if you’re on your own, here are some tips for proofreading your own writing. If possible, do ALL of these – you’re going to need to read your work several times in order to catch the most errors.
- Change the format. Since you can’t pull a fresh pair of eyes out of your desk drawer, you need to fool your tired brain into thinking you’re looking at something new. Printing a hard copy often helps – some people think differently with a pencil at hand instead of a keyboard. You can also try changing the size or style of your font or choosing a different viewing option in your word processor (for example, in Word you can switch from Print Layout to Web Layout to Full Screen Reading).
- Take a break. Get up from your desk, refresh your beverage, talk to a friend and then go back to your document. Or, work on another project for a half-hour or so before returning to proofread. If you have time, wait a whole day. You need to clear your mind of the prejudices it formed while you were drafting your piece.
- Check “special” copy. While a mid-page typo may be overlooked, an error in your title will stand out like a black eye on picture day. Using the final layout of your document, do a separate read just looking at content that is formatted differently from the main body. Titles, subtitles, bulleted lists, pull quotes, sidebar content, headers and footers, captions, numbers (check any math and confirm phone numbers), tables, graphs and so forth should all get extra attention. Don’t just look at spelling. Is everything bold that should be bold? Aligned properly? Capitalized correctly? Consistent formatting goes a long way in making you look good.
- Read aloud. Vocalizing the text requires you to slow down and helps you hear awkward phrases and rhythms. Plus, it engages a different part of your brain – hopefully the part that can tell if you sound like an idiot.
- Read backwards. You can scan backwards literally word by word, or you can read one line at a time from the bottom up. This is mostly for finding misspelled words.
- Read in vertical strips. Skim down the left margin, down the center and down the right margin, looking for errors and repetitions. This is a great way to discover if you’re using the same word over and over again, if your margins aren’t formatted correctly or if your heading styles don’t match.
The caveat: These are great tricks if you know what you’re looking for. However, if you don’t know what rules you’re breaking, you won’t see all of your errors. So proof at your own risk, understanding that proofreading yourself is like self-medicating – it can help you get by in a pinch, but it may overlook serious problems.
When it really matters that your copy be correct, seek professional help. You may even want to look into engaging a proofreading service; there are several you can look up online. Trust me – I’m an editor, and this blog post was proofread by someone else.
(And yes, I do realize that last sentence presents a huge dare to editorial curmudgeons. Go ahead and criticize – I’ll just blame my editor.)
Photo credit: matwright