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How to Proofread - 15 tips for error-free writing

The importance of proofreading your writing, plus key proofreading tips that show you how to proofread and make sure your writing is error-free.

How-to-proofread-5

What is proofreading?

To proofread a document is to carefully read it to find any errors in spelling, punctuation, or grammar, so they can be corrected before publishing.

Have you ever wondered where the word ‘proofreader’ comes from? It makes sense when we know the etymology of the word ‘proof’, and that it comes from the Latin probare, to test or prove.

We normally associate the word ‘proof’ with facts or information that show something exists or is true, but, as its etymology shows, it also refers to the action of proving or testing something.

A proof (noun) is something produced as a test version. And a galley proof is a trial version of a book created for proofreaders, as well as authors and editors, for proofreading and editing purposes.

So, a proofreader is someone who checks or tests proofs (or trial versions of documents/texts), for errors.

The internet has made it possible for rapidly growing numbers of people to write for an audience and for their work to be read. Just about anyone can write and publish a book to Amazon Kindle. The platform’s detailed instructions make the publishing process straightforward and, providing you follow their rules, open to everyone. You can set up a free blog and immediately start publishing your ideas and thoughts. Many small business owners write all sorts of types of content and copy, from marketing and advertising copy, to Home pages and About pages, to emails for clients and potential clients. And a lot of office communication is now carried out by email, rather than in person or by phone.

And then of course there are the more traditional forms of writing such as academic writing, fiction and nonfiction print books, and journalism.

All these forms of writing need to be proofread before publishing. When you’ve written the final word in your piece of writing you might think that your work is finished. But there’s more work to be done. Proofreading for things like spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word choice is an essential part of the writing process, and a vital part of creating a fine piece of written work.

Even if you have a gift for telling stories, or writing compelling blog posts, or you’re good at explaining complex issues in a way that most people can understand – your writing still needs to be proofread. Everyone makes errors as they write, and every writer has areas of weakness.

Why should you proofread?

Proofreading is important for several reasons, but most importantly for ensuring clarity of meaning in your finished text. You want to make sure your information is clear, and your message is understood – there should be no room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

You also want to make sure your reader is not distracted by errors. Having a lot of grammatical errors or spelling mistakes in a piece of writing is not only distracting, but can also be seen as a poor reflection of your knowledge and expertise in a subject – even when your actual content is great.

Some people do find errors like this particularly annoying, as well as distracting, and on content such as blog posts will happily point them out. Identifying and removing errors before you hit publish avoids any embarrassment you might feel about that kind of feedback.

Unfortunately, even minor errors in your writing can negatively affect your reputation and undermine the weight of your arguments, which is especially important if you’re writing because you want to be an influencer and recognized as an expert in your field.

Too many spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors can even affect your overall grades in your university essays.

So, after you get your ideas, arguments, and other content in order, proofreading is an essential step that helps ensure your writing is as good as it can be. It shows you’re conscientious and, combined with your great content, gives your readers a good impression.

First impressions count, and if your first contact with someone is via the written word, for example in emails or CVs/Resumes to potential employers, or in a university application, or for new visitors and possible clients to your website or blog, then you need to make that first impression as good as possible.

Even though visual and audio content such as videos and podcasts are so popular today, most communication is still in written format. And with the prevalence of things like blogging, and the growing trend towards remote working, freelancing, and the favouring of email over telephone calls, very often the main, and sometimes the only communication you’ll have with someone is via the written word.

More than ever, the ability to proofread documents is a necessary skill, and not only for those offering professional proofreading services.

If you’re going to proofread your own work, here are some proofreading techniques to help with the process.

Proofreading techniques

Get your content right first. Proofreading is the final check of your writing. Get your content right first and make sure you’ve included all your ideas and arguments, and you have the right structure for your type or genre of writing. Carry out overview editing to check for things like:

  • do your paragraphs flow well from idea to idea and guide your reader through your writing?
  • if you’re writing an essay, thesis, article, blog post etc., does your title and your introductory paragraph let your readers know what to expect?
  • Is your formatting correct? E.g. titles, subtitles, contents page, headers, footers etc.

Check for whatever’s relevant to your piece of writing. Then when that’s done, you can begin your proofreading.

  1. Write first, proofread last. Leave your proofreading until after you’ve finished writing. Writing and proofreading/editing use very different mental processes, and trying to proofread as you write can break the flow of your writing, the creative process of writing, and your chain of thought. However, this is general advice only, as many people much prefer to proofread (and edit) as they go along.

  2. Print a copy. Print your document out for proofreading. It helps you see errors you might have missed when proofreading digital versions.

  3. Change how it looks. If you’re reading on a screen, change the font size and type.

  4. Work on one section at a time. If you have a very long document to proofread, break it down into sections and work on one part at a time. This way, what could be a totally overwhelming task becomes much more manageable. You’ll be able to concentrate more fully on each section and will be less likely to miss errors.

  5. Take your time. Read everything through slowly and carefully. Try tapping or pointing to each word with a pencil. Leave time between finishing your writing, and proofreading. For example, two or three days if you can for things like blog posts, articles, essays, ebooks, etc. If that’s not possible, for example for things like emails and exams, at least leave a few minutes after you finish writing, so you can look at it with fresh eyes.

  6. Check for spelling errors. Most writing tools have spell-checkers built in. Depending on your audience, if you’re writing in English check you’re using the correct spelling variations e.g. US or British/UK.

  7. Check for punctuation. Especially punctuation that commonly causes problems such as semicolons and colons. A labour-intensive but apparently effective way to identify any punctuation errors is to pick out every single punctuation mark with a red pen.

  8. Check for missing words. These are very easy to miss as our brains automatically fill in the blanks, and we read what we expect to read.

  9. Proofread for only one error at a time. It helps you to really focus and not miss anything.

  10. Identify your weaknesses in your writing, and focus on checking for these. Every writer has them. If you know you have a tendency to over-season your writing with semi-colons and exclamation marks, or you know you sometimes have trouble with subject-verb agreement, make a point of checking for those. When you get feedback on your writing, note down any recurring errors errors you make so you can hunt them out next time you proofread.

  11. Try reading aloud. Very often it’s easier to pick out missing words and misspellings when you have to slow down and really pay attention so you can read your writing aloud. However, much as you do when you’re reading your own writing to proofread it, there’s a chance you may also read aloud what you’re expecting to read/say. So for an important document, you could get a friend, family member, or colleague to read it aloud for you instead. Or you could even try text to voice software. Typely supports text to speech and you can use it to read your text. proofreading text to speech

  12. Read it backwards. Try something really different and start at the end of your text and read it backwards! It might sound strange, but it’s effective because it forces you to focus on just one word at a time.

  13. Have someone else check your writing Ideally, you need to have more than one pair of eyes looking over your work. For things like emails that need to be sent immediately, it’s not realistic to do this of course, but for longer pieces get at least another two pairs of eyes to look over your work if you can. It’s not always easy to find someone to check your work, but perhaps you could partner up with someone and reciprocate.

  14. Use Online Proofreading Software. Online proofreading software is a very useful tool for picking up a variety of issues in your writing, and suggesting ways you improve it. Remember to keep in mind not to rely on it, as it won’t identify some common grammatical errors.

  15. Hire a Professional Proofreader. If precision and clarity are vital for an important document, and if your budget allows, you can have a professional proofreader check your work. There are many sites offering proofreading services online, and finding one to suit your budget and time-frame is straightforward. You can even find proofreaders who specialize in different areas. For example, academic proofreading to check for errors in your essays and research papers, or proofreading for medical, legal, or business writing.

There’s a caveat to the proofreading techniques suggested above - no matter how carefully a document is proofread, something will slip through the net. Who hasn’t spotted a typo or two in a published novel that’s probably gone through multiple stages of professional proofreading and editing? And I expect you’ve heard the quote, “I do my best proofreading after I hit send.” I think we can all empathise with that one!

It’s very difficult to successfully proofread your own writing in a consistent way, and although it’s a little embarrassing discover you’ve made typos in work that’s been sent or published, there’s no point feeling bad about it.

So, should this emphasis on the importance of proofreading for perfection put you off writing if you feel your writing isn’t good enough? Writing errors can attract surprisingly strong opinions, and it can be hard to go public with your writing if you’re worried about making mistakes. Blog posts and infographics with titles like “XX Grammatical Errors That Make You Look Dumb”, don’t help.

The definition of a well-written piece of text is subjective. For some, it will be perfect grammar and spelling, for others it will be writing that connects emotionally, regardless of whether the spelling, punctuation or grammar is perfect.

If you have something to say that you feel strongly about, it would be a great pity if you didn’t write it because of the fear that someone might call you out on your mistakes. The best way to improve your writing is practice – keep writing, and keep learning, and get into the habit of proofreading your work.

It really is worth spending the extra time to make sure your writing is the best it can be, and that you're giving the best impression of yourself and your writing that you can. But don’t let fear of making errors put you off writing. Every writer makes mistakes, and even professionally edited and proofread documents are sometimes published with the odd typo, missing word, and grammar gaffe.

How much do you worry about getting your grammar, spelling and punctuation perfect before you send or publish your writing? And do you have a favourite proofreading technique?