If you do much writing at all—blogs, memos, proposals, papers, even e-mail—you know the difficulty of proofreading your own work. It’s all too easy to proofread what you think you wrote rather than what you actually wrote. To paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel:
Still a man reads what he wants to read
And disregards the rest
The best advice, of course, it to have another person (preferably, a skilled editor) proofread your work and mark it up with corrections and suggestions. But that’s not always practical. Sometimes, you’ve just got to do the best you can on your own.
When you do need to go it alone, here are 7 tips to help you improve your own proofreading effectiveness.
1) Use a spelling checker
It (almost) goes without saying, but you should use a spelling checker to identify the most obvious errors. Nowadays, most editing environments include some type of spelling checker capabilities. There’s no excuse for publishing a misspelled word that a spelling checker can identify.
But at the same time, be cognizant of your spelling checker’s weaknesses. Having nothing flagged by your spelling checker does not mean there are no errors. Spelling checkers, in general, do not identify misused homonyms. For example a spelling checker can tell you to use “their” instead of “thier”, but it won’t recognize when you really should have used “they’re”.
2) Use a grammar checker
Spelling checkers help ensure you are using correctly spelled words. But grammar checkers go a step further and help ensure you are using those words correctly. Grammar checkers can recognize misused homonyms, misplaced punctuation, incorrect pronoun usage, malformed sentences, capitalization errors, and so on.
Of course, as with spelling checkers, having nothing flagged by your grammar checker does not mean there are no grammar errors (or that you’ve said what you meant to say).
Grammar checking features are not as commonly available as spell checking capabilities, but if you have a tool, such as Microsoft Word, that does perform grammar checking, you can still leverage that tool for other contexts. For example, before clicking “Post” on a blog comment or a Facebook post, you could copy and paste your text into an empty Word document, just to see if Word calls out any obvious problems.
3) Give it some time
Proofreading your own work is more difficult than proofreading someone else’s work. This is because you are so familiar with what you intended to write, and our brains are so good reading what was intended rather than what is actually written. It becomes very easy to overlook what you actually wrote. One way to mitigate this problem is to allow time between writing and proofreading. Of course you’ll need to strike a practical balance, but in general, the greater the time between writing and proofreading, the more effective you can be proofreading your own work.
4) Don’t proofread in your editing tool
This suggestion sort of goes hand-in-hand with allowing time between writing and proofreading. The idea is to create a different personal experience for proofreading than you had for writing. Proofreading in your editing tool is just too familiar, and too likely to allow you to see what you intended to write rather than what you actually wrote.
Some specific techniques for creating an effective proofreading context include:
- Print the content and proofread it on paper. If practical, print the content in an austere format that appears quite different than your editing environment. For example, use a fixed pitch font and double spaced lines.
- For proofreading online, use a tool like Readability or Evernote Clearly to automatically simplify the formatting and present an austere document that is easy to read—and very different from your editing environment. (You can also print these simplified views for offline proofreading.)
5) Use text-to-speech tools
Text-to-speech tools can read your writing back to you out loud. You can follow along in your proofreading copy (see previous step), and mark any problems you identify while listening. Having the computer read your writing back to you makes it more difficult to overlook a problem that has become invisible to you through your own familiarity with the work. The computer likely speaks more slowly and deliberately than you read, making subtle wording problems more noticeable.
For a long time I used the standard text-to-speech features of my MacBook Pro for proofreading. But recently, I’ve come to appreciate the text-to-speech capabilities of Evernote Clearly (premium edition). First of all, the quality of the speech is very good. But the icing on the cake is that Evernote Clearly’s text-to-speech works by reading the simplified formatting view described above. In addition, the tool highlights each word in the text as it is being spoken aloud. As you listen and follow along, errors usually become quite obvious. Evernote Clearly also includes tools for highlighting text, so you can mark problem spots on the fly and continue listening.
6) Hit the books
If you’re not sure if you’re saying something correctly, look it up! One of my favorite writing reference books is Sleeping Dogs Don’t Lay, but there are many others. And, of course, there are many good online resources—dictionaries, thesauri, grammar references, style guides, etc.
One trick I use almost daily: type “define ____” into Google. This will quickly verify the spelling and definition of a word, and provide references for finding synonyms, antonyms, usage examples, etc.
7) Rinse, Repeat
Once is never enough. Plan on proofreading your own work a minimum of two times, taking a break between each. But in general, if you find any errors in a proofreading pass(including a “proof-listening” pass), you should take a break, then come back for another pass.
Once you’ve made a pass finding zero problems, you’re probably good to go. But when proofreading your own work, there are no guarantees. (I proofread this post myself, and I’ll bet you can find something I missed!)
Do you have another good idea for proofreading your own work? Please share it in the comments.