Reading the newspaper each day, I catch frequent errors in grammar and usage. It’s easy for me to find errors in newspapers—and, in general, in the writing of others. What’s hard is finding errors in my own writing. By the time I get to the proofreading stage, I’ve looked at the document so many times that I see what I think is on the page, not what’s actually there.
My failsafe remedies for finding errors—asking someone else to proofread or putting the document aside for a while before a final proofing—aren’t always practical, especially with tight deadlines.
Feeling like I’ve exhausted my arsenal of proofreading techniques, I’ve looked to experts (including the Online Writing Lab at University of Arkansas, the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina, Grammar Girl) for advice beyond the tried-and-true (read aloud, use spell-check). Here are some new-to-me techniques for catching errors.
Proofread for only one kind of error at a time. For example, proof one time for punctuation (or even commas) and look for spelling errors in another read-through.
Check for spelling errors by reading the document backwards. Start with the last word on the last page and work your way back to the beginning. Because content, punctuation, and grammar won’t make any sense, your focus will be entirely on the spelling of each word.
Print in an unfamiliar font so that the document looks different. Try a smaller font to force you to read more slowly and concentrate.
Make a list of your proofreading gremlins. Are there words you frequently misspell? Do you capitalize headings inconsistently? Do you forget end quotes or the closing parenthesis? Proofread one time for your common errors.
Do occasional typos and other mechanical errors really matter? In a recent Washington Post column on the increase in grammar and usage errors in the newspaper, ombudsman Andrew Alexander quotes a reader on how these errors erode credibility: “If they don’t care about basics like grammar and spelling, how much do they care about factual accuracy?”
Add your proofreading tips to this list. Leave a comment or send me an e-mail.