How to Proofread Part One

How to Proofread, Part 1: Proofreading Your Own Work

Submitting a piece of writing feels sublime. The slog is over, the deadline has been hit (or missed, but at least it’s not getting any missed-er), it’s out of your hands. But the satisfaction glistens with greasy anxiety. How many mistakes did you miss?

Checking your own work is hard. Once you’ve stared at a page for hours, reorganising paragraphs, retching up the last of the word count or hacking chunks away, it’s tough to spot errors.

Professional writers, even those who also edit, will often hire professional proofreaders for just this reason. Editing as you go has merits, but if overdone it can lead to an odd, staccato narrative and far fewer words written per hour.

Note: There’s a lot of overlap between checking your own writing and proofreading someone else’s (which I’ll cover in the next post). If you make your living from proofreading and/or editing, you’ll probably employ the professional techniques for your own work. But for writers, students and report-compilers, there are a few tools and tricks to speed things up.

1. Mix it up

Change the font, the text size, and the colour of the text and background. It will make the page ‘new’ enough that you can spot obvious stylistic, grammatical and spelling errors.

What works best will vary from person to person, but generally:

  • Font:
    • Sans serif that you don’t usually use (Adobe Caslon, Lato, Open Sans)
    • Generous spacing (MS Word: Font > Advanced > Spacing: Expanded)
    • A few point sizes bigger than usual
  • Colours:
    • Light (not white) background (MS Word: Design > Page Color)
    • Dark (not black) font

If this isn’t dramatic enough to flip your brain into ‘new input’ mode, try a more unusual font and light-on-dark colours.

Two screenshots showing text with altered fonts and colours

2. Go away

Leave it alone for a while. An hour, if that’s all you’ve got – overnight is better.

Read it again with fresh eyes and correct the obvious errors and strangely worded bits.

3. Use grammar/spell check tools*

Spell checkers are finally at the point where useful corrections outweigh the inaccurate ones.

Microsoft Word is the tool most of you will be most familiar with. It’s a powerful, valuable bit of kit that’s benefited from the decades and dollars sunk into it.

If you haven’t looked at the settings, I suggest you do so. Spell check can be left alone but the extensive Grammar & Refinements pane bears examination.

Screenshot of MS Word's grammar settings

All the usual grammatical pitfalls (missing or redundant commas, possessives and plurals, unnecessary hyphenation) can be toggled; and so, too, can a handful of options labelled Clarity and Conciseness. Here, users can ask that they’re called up on their Wordiness and Jargon or increase their gravitas by flagging Words Expressing Uncertainty.

Aside from Microsoft Word’s customisably zealous Check Document button, the big players in the game are:

  • Grammarly
  • Hemingway (browser or desktop)
  • Yoast (WordPress)

Grammarly is the most popular by far. It’s cross-platform and comes with a good range of options. It also explains why it’s flagged words and phrases, which could be useful. The free version is restricted, and it pushes the upgrade hard, so I wouldn’t bother unless you’re willing to fork out.

4. Print it out

It’s much, much harder to proofread effectively on a screen.

Print your work, sit at a table with a red pen or highlighter, and mark the mistakes you find.

Then, do it backwards.

Bring your sheet back to the computer and make your changes, vandalising the marks as you go by scribbling them out or highlighting them in another colour. This will make life easier at the end, when you check the printout to make sure you didn’t miss any corrections.

5. Read it aloud

Reading your work aloud is a surprisingly effective way to pick up on any errors that have evaded steps 1-4.

More importantly, it highlights the clumsy or unnatural wording that can appear after a piece has been processed a few times.

Read the writing yourself or, better still, get a friend to do it for you.

If that’s unbearably embarrassing, use a text-to-speech tool. MS Word has one, but I prefer – you can use the basic tool forever, the more natural-sounding ‘premium’ voices for 20 minutes each day for free, or subscribe to a paid plan.

Even the best text-to-speech tools sound a bit peculiar (think about the insanely well-funded Siri or Google Assistant), so it’s not the same as having a human read the text.

That said, it has its own advantage: AIs won’t ‘fill in the gaps’ subconsciously, which the human brain tends to do. Mistakes will be revealed in all their ugly glory.

6. Send it in

Send your writing to your boss/professor/editor/blog. You’ll still feel anxious but, at this point, you’re safe in the knowledge that you’ve done everything that can be reasonably expected of you. That means you’re ahead of 90% of the submissions and your effort will, I guarantee, be noticed and appreciated.

Now, go away and write something.

* Simplicity < beauty

There is justifiable controversy surrounding tools like Yoast, Hemingway, and even Grammarly and the more restrictive section of Microsoft Word’s review tools.

Plain English, or concise writing, is an important skill for any writer. I’m a big supporter of the Plain English Campaign, which is pitted against political and legal gobbledegook. I ruthlessly cut articles where the author has tried to hide a lack of worth in wordiness.

However, I’m not a subscriber to the rising faith system based around Ernest Hemingway and prescribed to ‘content’ creators everywhere. Not least because it seems to have only a passing acquaintance with the author’s work.

Short sentences are good. They make a point. They’re easy to read. But alone, unaccompanied, unstirred into a pot of varied sentence length and rambling prose, they’re ever so dull. Hemingway knew that. A worrying amount of website owners do not.

Artificial intelligences can’t (yet) pinpoint the flow of inner narrative guided by good writing. Instead, they splash long sentences with red highlighter. They demand that a certain percentage of sentences include transition words. They shame bloggers into a uniform writing style.

Although corporate writers, content churner-outers and (perhaps) students can benefit from sticking to a plastic template, writers in charge of stuff that’s meant to be enjoyed will inevitably sidle back to elastic writing.

Still, there’s no harm in playing around with the tools on offer. It’s sometimes useful to see whether you’ve gone overboard with passive voice, slang or jargon – just don’t rely on AIs to make you a good writer.

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