One of the best ways to boost your credibility as a writer is to deliver pristine copy. Online grammar tools and spellcheckers can only do so much, however, so we’ve compiled some essential proofreading tips and tricks.
Proofreading requires a serious commitment of time and attention to detail, but it pays off in the long run. By consistently providing clients with publish-ready copy, you’re demonstrating you’re a writer they can depend on.
Here are 45 proofreading tips and tricks to get you started.
Set the Stage for Success
1. Keep a Grammar or Style Guide Nearby
You can’t proofread properly unless you know standard grammar rules and style conventions. Even the most seasoned writers consult a print or online resource when needed. Try The Associated Press Stylebook, Grammar Girl or Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab.
2. Review Project-Specific Guidelines
Some companies have internal style requirements. Know in advance the expectations for style choices such as serial commas or British spelling.
3. Know Your Weaknesses
We all have words that we struggle with or habits that are hard to break. Keep a personal checklist of errors that you tend to make and watch for them when proofreading.
4. Get Your Draft Into Top Shape
Proofreading can’t fix overall problems with structure and organization, so make sure your work is the best you can make it before doing a final check. Read up on best practices — vary sentence length and construction; remove unnecessary words; use direct language; and write in active voice.
5. Don’t Proofread Until Your Final Draft
Fix mistakes as you catch them during writing and editing, but don’t start a thorough proofread if your writing is a work-in-progress. Proofreading should be your final stage; otherwise, it becomes an editing session.
6. Commit the Time to Proofreading
Thorough proofreading takes time. Set aside a block of time well before a deadline so that you’re not rushed.
7. Avoid Distractions
Find a quiet spot to work or get a set of earplugs so you can focus on the task at hand. Proofreading is careful, detailed work and it’s hard to do it well if you’re constantly interrupted.
Get a Fresh Perspective on Your Writing
It’s hard to switch from writing to proofreading, as explained so well in this Wired article. When your brain is familiar with the text, it tends to skip over typos and errors. Try some of these proofreading tips and tricks to make your brain think it’s reading copy for the first time.
8. Step Away From Your Desk
Finished your final draft? Take a break and do something else before proofreading. Fresh eyes can spot errors much more easily.
9. Proofread in a Different Font
Change the font of your document to one you rarely use. Your brain will slow down as you’re reading to get used to the new shapes it’s interpreting.
10. Zoom in on the Words
Try viewing your document at 200% or more when proofreading. When the words fill up more of your screen, individual letters stand out and you can more easily pick out typos and errors.
11. Change the Layout of the Page
It’s easy to start skipping words in a line of text that’s the full-width of your page. Try setting two-inch-wide margins on the left and right of your document so you’re reading fewer words per line. Formatting the copy into two columns does the same trick.
12. Edit a Hard Copy
Give your eyes a break from the screen and print out a hard copy. Changing the medium gives your work a completely different feel.
Proofreading Tips and Tricks to Try
13. Slow Down
Proofread slowly so you can examine each letter, word and sentence. If you start speeding up, you’re likely looking only at groups of words.
14. Read a Line at a Time
When proofreading a hard copy, place a sheet of paper underneath each line as you read. Move the sheet down as you finish each line. This forces you to concentrate only on what you see.
15. Be Systematic
Proofread in stages to ensure nothing falls through the cracks. For example, read your work once for spelling, and then move to punctuation. This means making multiple passes, but you can focus on one error at a time.
16. Read Out Loud
Every word gets your attention when you read out loud.
17. Start From the End
Try proofreading from the end of your document to the beginning, one sentence at a time. You’re no longer reading for meaning and can study each sentence on its own merits.
18. Ask Someone Else to Proofread
Ask a colleague or friend to proof your writing. They may catch errors that you didn’t even know you were making.
19. Use an Online Grammar Check
Run your copy through an online grammar tool. Remember that software programs won’t catch all mistakes, and you still need to make a judgment call about whether the recommendations are correct.
Know What Mistakes You’re Looking For
We can’t cover all the mechanics of writing in this article, but you can watch for commonly made mistakes with these proofreading tips and tricks.
20. Examine Sentence Structure
Study each sentence separately. Try to spot fragments and run-on sentences, and consider if ambiguous pronouns or dangling modifiers are causing confusion.
21. Review Punctuation Marks
Pause each time you encounter punctuation such as a hyphen, colon, semi-colon or apostrophe, and make sure it’s used correctly.
22. Watch the Placement of Commas
Commas are one of the most commonly used punctuation marks but can be hard to get right. Familiarize yourself with comma usage rules so you can place them appropriately in your copy.
23. Scan for Spelling Mistakes and Typos
Now, look at individual words. Check for proper spelling and words that are missing, repeated or in the wrong spot. This is also a good time to check the spacing between words and sentences.
24. Check Words for Meaning
Watch for homonyms, which sound the same but have different meanings. For example, people often confuse “affect” and “effect” when writing.
25. Make Sure Subjects and Verbs Agree
The subject of a sentence can be singular or plural. Look to see that the corresponding verb agrees with the subject.
26. Use Parallel Structure
Parallelism ensures that all words or phrases in a series have a similar pattern to improve readability. For example, choose a structure for a set of bullet points, such as starting each one with a word in gerund form (ending in “-ing”).
Aim for Accuracy
In addition to proofreading for grammar and style, do some fact-checking to make sure the content of your work is accurate.
27. Confirm Names and Details
Review names of people, places and organizations for correctness and spelling. Confirm that addresses, phone numbers, dates and times are correct.
28. Do the Math Again
Double-check figures and statistics for extra zeros, misplaced numbers or calculation errors.
29. Check Quotations
It’s important not to alter what others say when you quote them. If you’re tidying up a quote by omitting words or clarifying meaning, use square brackets and ellipses.
30. Confirm Your Sources
Check that statistics and quotes are attributed to the correct source.
Here are some proofreading tips and tricks to ensure consistent formatting. Focus on one element at a time.
31. Watch the Style of Your Numbers
Look at each number. Are measurements written in the right format? Are you using the percentage symbol, if required, instead of the word? Don’t forget the rules for spelling out numbers from one to nine.
32. Check Each Header
Now, review the headers. Make sure each one is assigned the appropriate heading level, written in proper case (title or sentence), and punctuated as required.
33. Review Bullets and Lists
Review each list for consistency according to your internal style guide. Do the bullets need to be preceded by a colon? Should each point be capitalized? Make sure all lists are parallel.
34. Look Over Each Table
Check the content in each cell of a table for alignment (left, right or center), capitalization and punctuation.
35. Inspect the Footnotes and Endnotes
Confirm that each superscript in the body text has a matching reference. Footnotes and endnotes should be formatted in a consistent style.
36. Check the Numbering
Mistakes can easily crop up when there’s numbering in a document. Carefully review any numbered chapters, sections, headers, lists, footnotes and endnotes to ensure that numbering is sequential.
37. Review Cross-References
During edits, sentences can be moved or deleted. If you’re referring to a specific section, chapter or appendix, make sure you’re sending the reader to the correct place.
The Final Steps
You’re almost done! Here are a few other things to keep in mind.
38. Be Consistent With Your Edits
Any changes you make during proofreading must be applied consistently. The search function is handy for finding all instances of a certain word, but it’s a good idea to manually review changes instead of using a universal replace.
39. Make Sure the Links Work
Click on each link in the document to make sure it’s not broken and takes readers to the correct web page.
40. Perform One More Check
When you’ve finished proofing and making corrections, do one more review. Mistakes can slip in when you’re making changes.
Sharpen Your Proofreading Skills
Proofreading is an essential part of the writing process and helps ensure that your work is of the highest quality. Here are ways to develop your proofreading skills over time.
41. Make a Checklist
Always review feedback from editors, clients and project managers to see where you can improve. Prepare for your next proofreading session by making a list of things you struggle with. Go through your list and look for these mistakes before submitting your next piece.
42. Create a Proofreading Routine
Not all proofreading techniques work for each writer. Experiment with different strategies and find the ones that suit your style of working. The important thing is to establish a routine so proofreading becomes a habit.
43. Read Critically
Gain inspiration from great writing. Look at well-written articles to see how the author has constructed sentences and used punctuation. Try to understand the fundamentals of strong writing so you can incorporate these into your own work.
44. Commit to Lifelong Learning
Brush up on your knowledge by reading grammar and style guides to learn new rules. Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab has a series of video lectures and online exercises to practice what you’ve learned. To really elevate your skills, take an online course.
45. Remember, It’s a Process
If you’re overwhelmed, take a step back and remember that proofreading is like any skill. Keep practicing and developing your techniques, and over time, you’ll be delivering flawless copy like a pro.