Proofreading for dummies

by nike, October 15, 2014

This T-shit needs a proofreader!Recently, a fellow writer who has often received feedback telling them they need to proofread their work more carefully asked me for some advice on proofreading. Here’s what I came up with in terms of advice on how to approach proofreading your own work, with a little help from your friends.

What is proofreading?

Proofreading is not the same as editing! A substantive edit is the process of examining and changing your work, often at the structural level, as well as at the level of the paragraph and sentence.

Proofreading is the final stage of preparing your text for submission to an editor or publisher, AFTER you have edited the work. During proofreading, you are checking your work for grammatical and typographical errors. Proofreading is often challenging because, as the writer of the work, you are often blind to the faults it contains. As Mark Twain 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: (?) & 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.

So, let’s light the jets! Below is a four-tip outline of how to proofread your own work.

1. Equip yourself

Invest in a good Australian English dictionary, at least one style guide, and an Australian English thesaurus. You will also need: a ruler, a red pen (!), a strong will, and strong coffee. Well, *I* need coffee, though you may not.

When marking up hardcopy, I like to use a brightly-coloured erasable pen. (I like Pilot’s Frixion pens). The brightness ensures that the editing notes stand out on the page, and the erasability means I can change my mind!

In the longer term, study English grammar! You could do this simply by subscribing to a service such as Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips, buying/borrowing a good grammar study guide, or taking a writing/editing/grammar course (I teach one at USQ called Writing Good Prose).

2. Allow for a break between editing and proofreading your work

Plan the writing process so that you allow time to put the work away for at least a few days between editing and proofreading. This allows you to gain at least a little emotional and critical distance from the work.

3. Develop an awareness of your personal foibles as a writer

Build critical friendships with people you can trust, and share your work with each other. Ask your friends to help you identify the common grammatical errors or spelling errors you fall into. Do the same for them!

Over time, develop a checklist of grammatical or other proofreading errors you frequently make. This list might draw on comments from your peers, feedback from teaching instructors, and your growing knowledge of common grammatical errors. It will swell and shrink over time, as your knowledge of English grammar expands!

I also have a Search And Destroy list. These are words that you only get to use once for every 100,000 words. Not literally, of course. But pretty much. My list includes words such as weak, unnecessary qualifiers (very, quite, just), filtering words (heard, felt, saw), adverbs (especially those ending in -ly), pushbutton words (hearts, clouds, glistening), and words that — for whatever reason — seem to be my personal favourites (no more jasmine!). Ugh. As the daleks say: DESTROY!

Professional editors use a stylesheet for any large editing job: it could be useful for you to develop one for yourself. A stylesheet is usually formatted as a table, with one cell for each letter of the alphabet, and then a couple of ‘spares’ for things like ‘punctuation’ and ‘miscellaneous’. You then populate the cells with at-a-glance information about the style of the project. For example, I often use a style guide for each novel, and include in it the (correct) spelling of each character’s full name. Other common things to include in a style guide include which spelling you are using when there is more than one correct option (eg: acknowledgment, or acknowledgement? Style sheet or stylesheet?), or which punctuation option you might use in a similar situation (eg: Oxford comma, yes or no?!)

4. Work through the proofread in a methodical manner

Here’s what my proofreading process looks like:

  • Print out the work
  • Go through once and eliminate any unnecessary words (or, as E B White said: Omit needless words)
  • Read the piece aloud, underlining any place where you stumble, or where you verbally edit the work (that is, where I say something different to what is on the page). If you’re not sure you can do both at once, record yourself reading the work, and then sit with the red pen in hand while you listen to your recording. Even better: with short works, I often sit with a printout and get my critical friend to read the work to me. Cold (ie: without pre-reading it). That way, I can hear in their voice whenever they stumble over the text and make a mark on the page to show me where the work needs to be made more readable.
  • Starting at the end of the text, and using the ruler to obscure the sentence you aren’t working on, read each sentence individually to ensure it makes sense, is grammatically correct, and does not contain any typographical errors.
  • Use the dictionary and thesaurus: whenever I’ve used a word that’s not in my everyday vocabulary, I look it up and make sure it means what I think it means, and that I’ve used it correctly. This also helps to grow your vocabulary, and your awareness of English. Avoid relying on your gut feeling that this *is* the right word because you’ve been using it that way for years in conversation and nobody has said anything. (Just as an example, it’s a common error in poorly proofread work for writers to use the word ‘defiantly’ when they should be using ‘definitely’).
  • Using your grammar checklist, go through and look for the errors you make all the time! Do one read-through for each type of error. Sometimes, I use the search function to search the digital version of the document for the error (eg: its/it’s), but ALWAYS make the change on the hardcopy at this stage, not the digital one.
  • Using your stylesheet, ensure you’ve been consistent across the whole document in terms of spelling, punctuation and so on.
  • Finally, once the printout is fully marked up, go through the digital document making each change, and marking off the corrections on the hardcopy.
  • Print. Repeat. Share. (That is, if you have a willing critical friend, give them a final clean copy and ask them to identify any proofreading errors you’ve missed).

That’s it!

Got any great proofreading tips, resources, or tools to share? Hit reply and share with your fellow writers!

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