Mark Twain knew full well how hard it is to proofread effectively. As he said in a letter to Walter Bessant in February 1898:
“You think you are reading proof, whereas you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes & vacancies but you don’t know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along. Sometimes—but not often enough—the printer’s proof-reader saves you—& offends you—with this cold sign in the margin: (?) and you search the passage & find that the insulter is right-—it doesn’t say what you thought it did: the gas-fixtures are there, but you didn’t light the jets.”
No matter how carefully we examine a text, it seems there’s always one more little blunder waiting to be discovered. You can minimize the possibility of errors by employing the following tips.
There’s no foolproof formula for perfect proofreading every time. As Twain realized, it’s just too tempting to see what we meant to write rather than the words that actually appear on the page or screen. But these 10 tips should help you see (or hear) your errors before anybody else does.
1. Give it a rest. If time allows, set your text aside for a few days after you’ve finished writing, and then proofread it with fresh eyes. Rather than remembering what you meant to write, you’re more likely to see what you’ve actually written.
2. Look for one type of problem at a time. Read through your text several times, concentrating first on sentence structures, then word choice, then spelling, and finally punctuation. As the saying goes, if you look for trouble, you’re bound to find it.
3. Double-check facts, figures, and proper names. In addition to reviewing for correct spelling and usage, make sure that all the information in your text is accurate.
4. Review a hard copy. Print your text and review it line by line: rereading your work in a different format may help you catch errors that you previously missed.
5. Read your text aloud. Ask a friend or colleague to read it aloud. You may hear a problem (a faulty verb ending, for example, or a missing word) that you haven’t been able to see.
6. Use a spellchecker. The spellchecker can help you catch repeated words, reversed letters, and many other common slipups, but it’s certainly not goof-proof.
7. Trust your dictionary. Your spellchecker can tell you only if a word is a word, not if it’s the right word. For instance, if you’re not sure whether sand is in a desert or a dessert, visit the dictionary or a glossary of commonly confused words.
8. Read your text backward. Another way to catch spelling errors is to read backward, from right to left, starting with the last word in your text. Doing this will help you focus on individual words rather than sentences.
9. Create your own proofreading checklist. Keep a list of the types of mistakes you commonly make, and then refer to that list each time you proofread.
10. Ask for help. Invite others to proofread your text after you have reviewed it. A new set of eyes may immediately spot errors that you’ve overlooked.
Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge of the English language and the craft of fiction to help writers improve their work, offering them critiques and line editing.
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