How to proofread your own work
Even the most careful writers miss problems with their own work. We become ‘blind’ to what we have written and read what we meant to write, rather than what we actually wrote.
Don’t worry – it happens to us all!
If your text is going to be published (e.g. a book or an academic journal article), you should certainly seek a professional proofreader. Professionals are experienced and trained to spot common errors and inconsistencies, leaving you confident in your finished document.
If your writing isn’t for formal publication and you can’t afford a professional, the next best thing is to ask someone else to read through what you have written. Whether it’s a friend, colleague or family member, that fresh pair of eyes can make all the difference.
Even better is to choose someone from your intended audience – do they understand what you’ve written and do they know what they are supposed to do as a result of reading your text?
But if it’s just you, don’t worry. There are plenty of things you can do to help yourself when proofreading your own work. Here are my top tips:
1. Plan your writing
Okay, so this one isn’t strictly about proofreading, but bear with me! Planning your writing from the outset will help you when it comes to checking your work.
Different people like to plan in different ways so do what works for you. At the least, note down your answers to the following questions:
- Why am I writing this?
- Who is it for?
- What do I want to happen as a result of someone reading this?
Leave your plan there.
Now, I’m supposed to be talking about proofreading …
2. Leave plenty of time
Leave plenty of time for edits and a final read-through of your document. A rushed job is likely to contain errors you would normally avoid.
Make sure you have a clear head, and ideally leave a day or two between finishing your writing and doing the final read-through. Having fresh eyes yourself is the next best thing to using someone else’s.
3. Review your text against your plan
Ah yes, the plan! I knew there was going to be a reason for that!
Part of checking your own work is about making sure it meets its objectives. Perfect commas and capitals won’t matter if your actual content isn’t doing the trick.
Read through your document for sense and flow before you get into the nitty gritty, putting yourself in your audience’s shoes.
Edit, check again and edit some more.
4. Check through your document more than once
I know, I know – time is of the essence. But trust me, even a professional wouldn’t tackle everything at once!
If you’ve already reviewed your text against your plan, your sense and flow should be good to go.
Your next check might be for consistency and layout. Are the page numbers and headings correct? Are bullet points laid out consistently? Have you capitalised (or not) and hyphenated (or not) your key terms consistently throughout? There are many of these checks that can be done as standalone tasks rather than as part of a word-by-word proofread. You might want to create a checklist for yourself, depending on what elements are relevant to your document.
This word-level read-through is the final essential stage. This is where you should pick up any stray spelling, punctuation and grammar issues, and any typos that were missed in your sense check.
Read points 5 to 8 for tips on how to do this part of the proofread most effectively.
5. Read slowly
When checking your own work, read slowly to make sure you look at every letter in every word. Perhaps use your finger or a ruler to guide you through a document.
If you skim read, you’re likely to read what you meant to write, rather than what you actually wrote.
6. Beware of the little things
Short words (e.g. is, it and in) and thin letters (e.g. in possibilities and illicit) can easily be missed or misread. Be sure to take it slowly and check every letter.
Make sure you read from the very beginning to the very end of each line. Our eyes naturally focus on the middle section of the line, so it is very easy to miss a small word that appears once at the end of one line and again at the beginning of the next.
7. Don’t rely on spellcheckers
If you’re proofreading on screen, beware of typos that are not picked up by spellcheckers because they are real words, e.g. form instead of from, casual instead of causal, and the rather embarrassing pubic instead of public.
The difference between now and not may only be one letter but the meaning of your sentence could be altered dramatically by the slip of a finger:
You should now press this big red button.
You should not press this big red button.
Also watch out for words that sound the same but are spelled differently (homonyms), e.g. their, there and they’re. A spellchecker won’t pick up if you’ve used the wrong one, and you might not notice the mistake if you’re just quickly reading the words in your head.
8. Read out loud
Read out loud to ensure you read every word. This also helps you to keep focused and helps you to recheck sense and flow. Reading inside your head allows you to skim read and this can let the mind wander.
Did you know your computer can read text out loud to you? This is a good way of identifying those little problems that have crept in but are difficult to spot, like a double the or an it that should be an is.
Check out these instructions on how to use the Speak function in Word. A quick search will find you guidance on how to do this in your preferred web browser too.