Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Proofreading will make your story better. There are few guarantees anyone can give about art – even fewer that apply to every individual – but that’s one of them. Proofreading, in fact, is the single most effective way to make your story better; a magic bullet that can transform a piece of writing from unpublishable to unbelievable.
It’s a shame, then, that it’s something from which our brains seem inherently repulsed. If you’re an author, you’ve probably had the experience of sitting down to proofread a piece of work and ending up doing anything else. Writer’s block is a piece of cake next to proofer’s block. What’s more, our brains hate proofreading so much that they’ll even convince us we can’t do it, or that it doesn’t need doing, or that it doesn’t need doing yet – anything to avoid carrying out this onerous, completely necessary task.
As an editor who has proofread many different works, I’ve got some experience in convincing my brain to stop complaining and get to work. Some of that is training, some is experience, and some is minor tips and tricks that make the whole endeavor easier to pull off. In this article, I’ll be sharing four of those basic tips and explaining how they can make your proofreading easier, more effective, and more likely to happen in the first place. Before that, though, I need to clear something up.
Something that crops up again and again in discussions of proofreading is that it’s just reading with purpose – that an editor is always ‘proofreading’, because they’re just applying their existing knowledge to the words in front of them. This isn’t true, and believing it makes authors less capable of proofreading their own work.
In reality, proofreading is a specific task that necessitates taking a comprehensive, forensic look at individual words, sentences, paragraphs, and a document as a whole. It is far, far more involved than reading for pleasure, it takes mental energy, and it requires you to fight against your natural impulses.Proofreading takes focus and mental energy – rush and you’ll miss important errors.Click To Tweet
We’ve all seen those text tricks online where the letters in a word are jumbled up and yet you can still read it perfectly, or where ‘and’ appears at the end of one line and at the beginning of the next, and your brain ignores the duplication so that it’s only noticeable once you check back. These tricks depend on the fact that a lot of reading is down to the brain’s ability to apply context and force flawed text to abide by established patterns. Normal reading is skimming, and that’s great: the better your brain is at ignoring flaws, the smoother your reading experience will turn out to be. In proofreading, however, the better your brain is at skimming, the more errors you’re going to end up leaving in place.
Because of this, one great tip for proofreading is to take regular breaks and try not to proofread when you’re feeling tired or distracted. Be aware that good proofreading requires you to fight your brain – to undo a process that’s automatic and generally benefits you in other areas of life. Shortly, I’ll cover ways to make that fight easier, but just the understanding that it’s coming is a start. There are many, many authors who ‘proofread’ by just reading their books, waiting for the errors to jump out. They won’t, and not only is this kind of proofreading useless, but it encourages a dangerous confidence that stops such authors performing further checks or asking a third party to lend a hand.
That’s not to say, however, that proofreading is beyond any individual writer. While I would recommend enlisting some form of professional help before taking your book to the market, I can also guarantee that there are errors in your manuscript that you can catch yourself. That’s the nature of the task – there are many, many errors in any piece of writing, and proofreading is an attempt to catch as many of them as possible. ‘Not all of them?’ I hear you ask. It’s a great goal, sure, but here’s the thing…
The philosophy of proofreading
The first thing I was taught as a proofreader was that I was never going to be able to get a piece perfect. To try and do so is a waste of time, in fact it can delay a piece of writing that’s otherwise ready for the next step. The second thing I was taught was that the urge to do this comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the proofreader’s role – your goal isn’t to get a piece perfect, it’s to ensure the easiest possible experience for the reader.Proofreading is about improvement, not perfection.Click To Tweet
Imagine, for a second, that you’ve been asked to clear a section of road in time for a parade. The sensible thing to do is to sweep the road carefully, removing branches and other debris that could get in their way. You should take your time and check the route more than once, but never forget that you’re clearing the road for a purpose. This is the sensible, practical way to look at proofreading – you’re clearing any errors out from underfoot, making the reader’s progress easier and more enjoyable. The big branches have to go, they’re a priority, after which you can spend time picking up smaller items, mindful of the fact that the parade needs you out of the way to proceed and there are other things to do once the route’s been checked.
What you shouldn’t do is forget about the parade and become obsessed with clearing the road as its own job – picking up every pebble, bringing out a broom to ensure absolutely nothing remains. The parade doesn’t need that, and after a certain point you’re wasting your time and holding everybody up. It may sound ludicrous, but it’s a trap that grabs many authors, and that’s because of what I said earlier: there is always something to catch. You’re never going to run out of errors to correct or tweaks to make. Sadly, that also means that there’s rarely going to come a point where you read through a story and decide that you’re definitely done.
Where you draw the line on your own editing is a personal decision (though I stand by the recommendation in this article), but this concept of purposeful action should be a major factor in how you reach it – in fact, it should influence most elements of how you approach proofreading and editing. It can even be useful in getting yourself to proofread in the first place, as it clarifies that there is an end in sight, you’re working towards a goal, and while you need to pay close attention to the words on the page, the more thorough you are now, the less you’ll have to backtrack later.
With the philosophy and reasoning of proofreading covered, I’ll move onto tips, starting with one that makes life a lot easier.
Tip #1 – Keep a record
Taking notes makes proofreading so much easier that it’s borderline criminal more sources don’t emphasize it when advising authors. In general, most editors will have a template document in which they record any ‘choices’ made while editing or other facts that will be useful later in the proofreading. By ‘choices’ I mean any decisions that have clearly been made by the author, or any decisions the editor makes while proofing.
For example: Some people capitalize after a colon.
For example: some people don’t capitalize after a colon.
If it’s clear that the author has a preference, it makes sense to note that down in the editing record. Later, you’ll be able to check the record and confirm whether the same rule has been followed throughout. The editor can also make choices, for example if an author used both ‘no-one’ and ‘no one’ in a piece, it would be down to the editor to pick which should be applied throughout (often in consultation with the author, depending on how minor or major the choice is). Having made this decision, the editor would note it down in their record. If the editor has a record template ready, they might even write it under ‘N’ for ease of reference.
If you really want to make life easier, you can create a document like this before you begin writing. Such documents are called ‘style guides’ and outline as many choices as the author can think of for later notice. You can even turn the proofreading record from your first book into the style guide for your second.
Record-keeping is useful, in that it creates an objective reference for whether words are as they should be, but it’s also great for heightening your proofreading skill. Recording an error will help fix it in your mind and make you more sensitive to the words on the page. It creates a sense of progress, every error and choice pinned down rather than free to flutter off and become a problem again later on.Record errors and choices as you proof – you’ll be glad you did.Click To Tweet
Finally, record-keeping makes you more aware of patterns. One thing that’s easy to miss in proofreading is repeated phrases (our brains struggle to let go of a good phrase, offering it up again just a few sentences after we first use it), but the record-keeping mindset makes that less probable. You’re already looking for reoccurring issues, so you’re more likely to spot repetition of every stripe.
Tip #2 – Carry out spot-checks
Proofreading requires intense attention, but there’s still a limit on what’s sensible for a long work. Because of this, it makes sense to perform a spot-check every so often. By dedicating extra time to a short section, and approaching each word letter by letter, you’ll pick out errors that you’d otherwise miss and, more importantly, spot things to be aware of as you continue your proofread.
Most errors that should be addressed in a proofread recur in some way. Yes, there’ll be the odd typo and misspelling, but repeated terms, odd phrasing, and over-/under-punctuation are more common and more dangerous. Spot-checking focuses your attention on these issues, heightening your awareness for the proofreading that follows – there might be a term that you’d never catch otherwise, but after studying it intently, it’ll jump out at you on the next use. Taking some extra time also cues the brain that things just got serious – you’ll be more open to reimagining the text in front of you, something that’s ideal for spotting the really subtle stuff like incorrect prepositions.
Spot-checks are draining, and it’s up to you how you want to organize them. I’d suggest a paragraph or so per spot-check, with checks occurring on a higher per-page basis the more useful you’re finding them, and the more energy you have left.
One trick that many swear by when spot-checking is to read a sentence backwards. This is a way of combating the brain’s ability to skip errors by using context clues, and in fact uses your natural understanding of language to your advantage. Read backwards, a sentence becomes less familiar, but your brain is still trying to ‘work out’ what it should be. Because of this, it’s especially sensitive to odd word choices or clunky phrasing, as they make assembling the sentence harder. Some swear by this technique for full-book proofreads, but this is an unrealistic goal for most. Reading backwards asks your brain to do a lot – that’s why it’s effective – and over long periods, that kind of pressure can lead you to give up and start skimming.
For spot-checks, though, it’s a great device, and one I’d suggest any proofreader experiment with in their quest to clear the road and make sure the parade doesn’t encounter any problems.
Tip #3 – Read aloud
I won’t dwell on my third tip, as it’s something I’ve mentioned before, but it’s a real ‘must’ for proofreading. Hearing words aloud is a completely different act to reading them in your head, and it will give you a fresh, useful viewpoint on your work. Errors that your mind can cover up or forgive will be more apparent when spoken – clunky sentences will physically slow you down, and punctuation will stop being marks on a page and become what it really is: a way to dictate the pace and structure of a sentence.
Reading aloud is an easy way to detect flaws in your writing, and while many people agree that they can see the logic, and vow that it’s something they’ll do with their next project, they just… don’t. Perhaps it’s because we feel silly reading aloud, perhaps it’s difficult to find the motivation to read just to yourself, but this tip is persistently underutilized.
While I’d suggest reading through your work aloud at least once, authors should at the very least read sections aloud as part of a spot-check. You’ll pick up on faulty phrasing and, by doing so, be more sensitive to the same error the next time it comes along.
Tip #4 – Stop at punctuation marks
My fourth and final tip is one that some people will be able to incorporate into a full proofread and some will only be able to use during a spot-check, but even in small doses, it can be really useful. Reading to each punctuation mark is exactly what it sounds like – proofread as usual, but deliberately pause every time you hit punctuation. Like all the tips so far, this will help you catch individual errors, but also heighten your perception of your punctuation and grammar.
Hit one comma that doesn’t really need to be there and, suddenly, you’ll be investigating every comma you come across. Proofreading isn’t a search for possible errors; it’s a hunt for errors that are definitely there. Stopping at punctuation marks creates a form of suspicion that works well with this process – feel like you’re stopping too often, or that you’ve gone for too long without resting? You might just be on to something.Enhance your proofreading by stopping at all punctuation and even reading backwards.Click To Tweet
Stopping at punctuation marks is useful for discovering idiosyncratic edges to smooth off your work. Having your own writing style and voice is fantastic, but it’s important not to have too much of a good thing. Punctuation dictates rhythm, and being hyper-aware of it is a great way to catch yourself overusing subordinate clauses, over-extending sentences, or indulging in too many tag questions.
Assembling your proofreading plan
The beauty of the tips above is that they work together to create a really effective proofreading plan – reading aloud only makes stopping at punctuation more effective, and recording the errors you find will make your heightened awareness even more pronounced.
If it all sounds like too much to do at once then don’t worry – you don’t have to. You can experiment with the tips above to find your own groove, or even add another read-through so you can handle punctuation stops and reading aloud separately. Be aware, also, that you’ll often have to clear the big branches out of the road before you can start shifting the smaller, ankle-turning stones. Trying to perform a comprehensive proofread with one big, all-encompassing sweep often doesn’t work. The typos and broken sentences will drag you towards them and away from subtler issues, generally never to return. Consider an initial sweep to do the heavy lifting and then a few more comprehensive proofreads for the details that would otherwise be overshadowed.
If you’re still feeling overwhelmed, remember that there are always professionals ready to help. We’re happy to come by on our street sweeper and perform a third-party proofread. Even there, though, it’s effective for authors to have proofed to the best of their abilities. As I said at the beginning, there are always more errors, and if the large branches have already been dragged off the road when we arrive, we can dedicate more of our resources to the issues that require specialist equipment.
If you’re ready for a professional proofread, check out our editing services for more information. Or, if you want more tips on enhancing your own editing abilities, try Four Secrets That Will Turn You Into An Objective Editor.
Have you tried the tips above? How did you find them, and do you have any of your own advice to add? Let me know in the comments.