Remember, Dan Quayle and that potatoe? A recent bestseller details the world’s worst typographical errors, from hotel brochures advertising a ‘French widow in every bedroom‘ to Tea Party signs declaring President Obama’s ‘crisis of competnce’. Read it again.
Proofreading should protect you from this. Of course, proofreading is not only about grammar and punctuation, but content, style, and tone. Here are 20 tips and techniques to help proofread your documents, blogs and emails.
What is proofreading?
It’s the difference between calling someone your boss a manager or the mange. Just one letter.
The spellchecker won’t (not wont) find it but others will.
20 Proofreading Tips
Here’s a framework for proofing any type of business document. Let me know if this works for you and what you’d add.
1. Wait 24 Hours, then Publish
Starting at the top. After you’ve finished writing, put it aside for one day. No, really, just do. In the morning everything is different.
Resist the urge to hit Publish when feeling the white heat of inspiration.
Instead, cool down, give yourself some distance and look at in the morning. You’ll be glad you did. It’s easy to confuse affect and effect, currently and momentarily and those other subtle beauties.
2. Print it
Then find a quiet place where you can edit the document slowly.
Notice how you see things on the written page that you missed on the screen.
Your (not you’re) eye will catch these when printed. If this isn’t practical for all documents, at least print out those that must be checked thoroughly. Some documents are more important than others!
3. Increase the Onscreen Font Size
Don’t have time to print it out or don’t have a printer?
Increase the point size or use the zoom tool to make the text easier to read.
Another trick is to use a non-standard font. This forces you to slooooow down and read more carefully.
Assume all facts are wrong. No, really do. Develop a nice, healthy skepticism.
Double check every fact on the page.
As Al Pacino says to Hilary Swank in Insomnia – ‘It’s your name on the report.’
Hilary checked and that’s when the movie changed gear.
Likewise, check percentages carefully.
Did you really mean he got a 200% payrise or was it 20%?
Also, be careful with dates. Don’t write Tuesday, May the 7th when May the seventh is actually Thursday. Spellcheckers don’t find these mistakes.
5. Headers and Footers
If you’re using an internal company template, make sure to change the default settings in the header and footer. Also check that they don’t refer to the previous document, i.e. if you’ve went File, Save As to save time.
6. Document Properties
Change the File, Properties if you’re sending a MS Word document.
Otherwise the setting will show the previous document’s details, also captured during PDF conversion.
7. Read Backwards
Don’t start on line one, page one.
Start at the very end and, using a ruler, work your way back to the top. This forces you to pay attention and stop your momentum.
8. Use a wooden ruler
Put it under each line as you read. Again, this forces you to pay attention and stop your eyes jumping ahead.
9. Look for Gaps
Check for the most obvious piece of information and see if it’s there. For example, have you included the date on an invitation? Have you mentioned the name of the site and included a link? Have you included the person’s job title? Have you dated the press release?
10. Blind Spots
No one’s perfect. We all have problem areas when it comes to editing.
Create a list of those that trip you up. Print it out. Put it on the wall. Check this after you’ve completed the first round of edits.
Congratulate yourself when you find one. That’s what it’s there for!
11. Read it out
Maybe not in the office 🙂 but book a meeting room, print out the document and read it aloud. Your ear will pick up where the tone is wrong, transitions that don’t work, and sections that need to be revised.
12. One problem at a time
Don’t try to proofread the entire document in one go. Instead, proof it several times. Each time focus on a different area. For example, check the spelling, then grammar, then format, then tone, then facts and so on.
13. Use proofreading checklists
I know editors that keep checklists next to their desks and use them when proofing documents. Why? Nine times out of ten, you’ll catch all the mistakes. But, when you’re working late, under pressure, feeling unwell or stressed out… it’s hard to think clearly.
Checklists are there to remind you what you’d usually remember to check but may overlook when stressed. Don’t let pride undermine your efforts.
14. Get Help
Proofing your own work is a recipe for dysentery, sorry disaster. Phew! Ask someone else to review it for you. Don’t just hand it to them. Get them started by saying, for example, ‘I’m not sure if I covered all the angles. What’s do you think I missed?’ They’ll tell you and catch a few gremlins in the process.
15. Proofreading Spelling Mistakes
There are three problems here.
- One is that something may be spelt incorrectly. Easy to fix.
- The second is when it’s spelt (or is it spelled?) correctly but used in the wrong content.
- A third is when foreign words enter your text unawares, usually when copy and pasting.
Unless your spellchecker is setup correctly, it won’t catch it.
Some repeat offenders include:
- their (possessive form of they); there (place); they’re (contraction).
- accept (verb, meaning to receive or to admit to a group) instead of except (usually a preposition, meaning but or only)
- who’s (contraction) v whose (possessive form of who)
- its (possessive form of it) v it’s (contraction of it is or it has)
- affect (verb, meaning to influence) v effect (noun, meaning result)
You’ve probably read the book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Adding or deleting a comma in the wrong place changes the meaning of a sentence.
Use a comma to:
- Signal a pause between the start and main part of the sentence.
- Join two independent sentences with a conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).
- Signal the presence of a nonrestrictive element.
- Separate the items in a series.
Apostrophes are the glue that tags one word onto another. He’s, it’s, user’s, school’s and so on.
Apostrophes show that one thing belongs to another. It’s also used to contract words.
This allows us to compress cannot into can’t… but not cant, which is a different word.
18 & 19. Active and Passive Verbs
Nothing wrong with active or passive verbs. Each have their own place. However, be careful when you use this construction.
- In active voice, the subject performs the action of the verb
- In passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb.
If you want to avoid naming someone or something, then use the passive verb.
For example, ‘the car was crashed by a member of government.’
…is softer than, ‘a member of government crashed the car.’
20. Misplaced or Dangling Modifiers
One way to proofread misplaced or dangling modifiers is to highlight them with a pen.
Then connect them to the word they’re describing. This helps you track which is the correct word (i.e. being modified).
To fix this, move the misplaced modifier closer to the word it describes.
In proofreading, take nothing for granted. Unconscious mistakes are easy to make, especially when proofing what you’ve wrote.
Reading aloud forces you to slow down and hear the words as well as see them. Two senses are better than one!
Finally, it’s twice as hard to find mistakes in your own work as in someone else’s – so assume that there are mistakes in there.
Now go hunt them down!
What else would you add? What’s the one thing that trips you up when proofing your documents?