Preventing goof-ups: 10 proofreading tips

No time to hire a pro? Follow these suggestions to clean up your copy.

When I see the published version of something I’ve worked on—whether it’s a book, brochure, website or newsletter—I never experience that delicious little frisson of excitement that should accompany all new things. Instead, I feel dread.

Where are the mistakes? What’s the client/boss going to hate? What could have gone wrong?

Call it glass-half-emptyism if you like, but I’ve been at this game long enough to know that mistakes get made. And, if you’re the editor, those mistakes are bound to be blamed on you.

There’s also one other truth. I was born an editor, not a proofreader. And I’m convinced that good proofreaders are thrust into this world with a special and delicate piece of DNA that the rest of us are missing. It’s kind of like the math gene or the team sports gene, both of which I lack. As a result, when time and budget permit, I always hire a professional proofreader. When I can’t, I use the following tricks to help me (and my readers) survive:

1. Try to allow at least one day to pass after finishing writing and before proofing. (Longer is even better.) This gives the necessary distance to catch the unconscious mistakes we all make, such as typing now for know or triker for trickier.

2. You will catch more errors if you print out your text and proofread on paper. The human eye reads material onscreen much more quickly and less carefully. Print out your work before proofing.

3. If there is some reason that prevents you from printing, use a distinctive typeface and bump up the point size before proofing. When I am forced to proof onscreen, I use Papyrus 20 point—this makes it easier to catch errors.

4. Question all “facts,” paying particular attention to names, people, places, books, movies, songs, addresses, titles and dates. The most common mistake is to mismatch days with dates. (Example: saying Monday, Oct. 5, when in fact it is Tuesday, Oct. 5.)

5. Be especially careful with the obvious yet somehow “invisible” stuff. One time, I nearly signed off on a new publication. The problem? We misspelled the client’s name at the top of the front page, in 48-point type! Three of us, including a professional proofreader, had managed to miss this hugely embarrassing error. The type was so big; we’d never looked at it. Fortunately, my printing rep caught the mistake before it was too late.

6. Start at the end. Professional proofreaders often read at least once backwards. That is, they begin at the end and work back through the piece, line by line. Even better, if you have time and a willing friend, share proofreading tasks. It’s easier to catch mistakes in someone else’s work.

7. Put a ruler under each line as you read the text. This stops your eye from jumping ahead to the next line.

8. Consider what you might have omitted. For instance, if the piece is an invitation requiring an RSVP, it needs a phone number or e-mail address to which someone could respond. And, of course, it should have the date of the event and an address.

9. Make a list of your own common errors and check for those specifically (“its” instead of “it’s” is a big problem for some people, for example).

10. Read your work aloud at least once. You’ll catch a lot more errors this way.

Oh, and if you find any mistakes in this piece (fingers and toes madly crossed!), well, heck, I’m just the writer. Blame the editor.

This story first appeared on Ragan.com.

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