What is proofreading?
Proofreading is not editing. The goal of editing is to rearrange, cut, and add writing to the draft. It focuses on choosing the diction, making the writing succinct, and clarifying ambiguity.
The goal of proofreading is to correct visual errors to end up with a mistake-free document. It covers basic spelling, punctuation, grammar, and formatting.
When you’re proofreading, you’re looking to ascertain the correctness in the document’s:
- Spelling and grammar. Are there any typos? Are all of the commas in the right places? Do they need to switch out a semicolon for a colon or comma? Is there a preposition at the end of the sentence?
- General comprehension. Do the ideas make sense? Are they presented in a meaningful order? You might find more grammatical mistakes while reading for comprehension.
- Formatting. Does the document follow the rules it needs to correctly (e.g. MLA formatting vs APA formatting)? Is the formatting consistent throughout the piece? Is the capitalization consistent?
If you’ve ever read through your essay one last time before turning it in, you’ve done proofreading. As you level up in life, the mistakes have higher stakes. So here’s some tips, tricks, and a process for proofreading your work (and other people’s work) most effectively.
Best proofreading practices
In a perfect world we could properly proofread in a single pass. Alas, our minds aren’t focused enough to accurately proofread a document and correct every mistake by reading through it only once.
But there are better and worse ways to proofread. Here’s the top 4 proofreading practices I found while researching:
- Cut distractions. Allow yourself to be as alone with the document as possible. You can control your reading environment. This means finding a quiet place, turning off notifications, turning on the lights, and sitting up straight (or walking).
- Read out loud. Especially if you’re proofreading your own work, reading out loud enables you to notice misplaced commas, needed commas, awkward phrasing, and almost any other issue with the writing itself.
- Change the font or print it out. Don’t use a computer screen to proofread if you can help it. For one, it increases potential distractions, but it’s also harder to focus on the writing itself when you’re reading them off of the computer. Changing the font will help you to see the words differently (especially if you make it bigger). Printing it out helps your mind to focus on the words (although an iPad might work for you).
- Read backwards. Read the last sentence. Then the sentence before that. Repeat until you reach the beginning. Reading backwards allows your mind to see each sentence in isolation, which helps you see errors more easily.
As you can see, you can combine these practices to help you proofread faster. Practicing your skills as a proofreader is the best way to come up with your most effective proofreading method.
Now, if you’re proofreading your own work I have one last practice: take a break from your document before you proofread it. Allow yourself to forget that perfect sentence you crafted on page 2 so that when you come back, you have a less biased view of your writing.
How to proofread in 3 passes
If you’re short on time or trying to get through a long document, here’s my most effective way to proofread.
- Read backwards for spelling and grammar. Focus your first pass on catching typos and punctuation errors. Do this by reading backwards so that your focus is not on the content, but on the grammatical arrangement of the words.
- Read aloud for general comprehension. By reading your second pass aloud, you’ll find any especially awkward phrases. You might even catch more grammatical errors as you hear the words coming out of your face.
- Read for formatting. While you might not need to read the whole document this time, you’ll want to go back and double check for consistency (especially in capitalization, dates, and citations), and run through other pertinent rules (page numbers, font type/size, indents, etc.). Pay especial attention in this pass to headings, titles, and captions.
By focusing each pass on a specific concern, you maintain your critical eye without getting inundated by all the possible errors. Doing so in this order helps you read the document as though it were the first time you’d seen it each time.
Now, if you are serious about having an error-free document, you should hire a proofreader. But at $40 an hour, it is not cheap labor. So until then, use these tips to make the most of your own brain and improve the quality of your writing.
Do you have any other proofreading advice I haven’t covered here? Any alternatives to proofreading your own work? Any further clarifications between proofreading and editing?