Before you send your term paper to your professor or your manuscript to a publisher, you probably take a few (dozen) hard looks at your work.
And you’re right to do so—silly little mistakes can cost you your credibility and reputation as a writer, potentially costing you jobs, good grades, and other opportunities.
But do you actually know what you should be looking for as you move through the revisions process?
Learn successful strategies for careful proofreading that will help you catch more errors before anyone else sees them.
What is Proofreading?
Proofreading is the process of reviewing a text and checking every component carefully to ensure it is ready for publication.
It is important to note that proofreading is not the same as copyediting. It is the proofreader’s job to find any last text or formatting errors and confirm that the piece is ready for publication.
In general, the proofreader does not suggest major edits to the text or do much rewriting—if necessary, that should be done in the step prior, by the copy editor.
In its true definition, proofreading refers to the review of a text in its printed format (or how it will be laid out once it is printed). In addition to catching any last grammatical errors, proofreading focuses on errors in the layout.
In the academic world, professors will often urge students to proofread their work thoroughly before handing it in, though their emphasis is more on spelling and punctuation errors, not on the layout or actual “proof.”
Always consult the appropriate style guide for precise rules and recommendations as you begin the proofreading process.
Below is a list of components that should be checked during the proofreading stage, including grammatical errors and layout mistakes.
Grammar and Punctuation Errors to Check For:
- Citation formats
- Numbers and numerals
- Names of places
- Quotation marks
Layout Issues to Check for:
- Spacing (ensure there are no missing or extra spaces)
- Consistent formatting (ensure that fonts and font sizes are consistent)
- Awkward line breaks
- “Widows” (lines at the end of a paragraph or column that contain just one word, leaving an abundance of white space)
- “Orphans” (one or a few words at the top of a page, again leaving an awkward white space)
- Proper indentations
- More than two hyphens stacked at the end of lines
You can also download and print our proofreading checklist to help you with your editing.
Use these effective proofreading strategies to catch more errors and produce a clean copy in less time.
1. Print a hard copy.
A printed copy, when possible, can make it much easier to catch errors. Staring at a bright screen for hours is not only hard on your eyes, but it also makes it harder to catch those small mistakes.
Grab your favorite red pen, find a comfy chair, and start hunting down those errors.
2. Limit your distractions.
Another bonus of using a printed copy? You won’t be interrupted by Facebook notifications or email alerts, so you can stay productive and focused.
But if printing dozens of pages isn’t an option for you, turn off your notifications for social media and even your email so you can limit your distractions as much as possible.
Head to a quiet, comfortable space where you won’t be disturbed. Keep the television off. However, if you work well with some soft background music, feel free to relax with your favorite productivity playlist.
3. Keep your style guide handy.
Whether you’re writing a research paper or submitting a manuscript, there’s probably a preferred style guide that you should be referring to as you work through your proofs.
Check that you have the most updated version and refer to your guide whenever you have doubts or questions. If you can’t find a solution to your specific question, strive for consistency.
4. Focus on one issue at a time.
Your first run through a text should be focused on clarity, consistency, and any grammatical errors that might have slipped through.
Once these issues have been checked, you can move on to spacing or formatting problems.
If you try to catch everything in the first round, you’ll likely miss quite a few errors (or even add your own into the mix).
5. Check facts, figures, and names.
If you’re proofreading a highly technical or expository piece, most likely someone has already been tasked with checking every single fact for accuracy.
However, whenever you have a doubt about something you read, go ahead and do some quick research, just to be sure.
When it comes to figures, make sure that they are formatted properly and are consistent with the rules laid out in your style guide (or with the rest of the piece).
Also check that all names (be they of people, places, things, or even concepts) are spelled correctly. It might take a few more seconds of Googling, but avoiding these mistakes is worth the effort.
6. Take a break.
Ideally, the same person won’t write, edit, and proofread a text. However, if you’re self-publishing or doing both the copy editing and proofreading for a text, you’ve probably been scrutinizing the same pages for quite a while now.
Give your eyes (and your brain) a break. Step away from your work for a while—a few hours or days can really help—so you can see the text with fresh eyes and be more alert to potential errors.
7. Read backwards.
Whether you’re proofreading your thesis paper or your next bestseller, this technique can be incredibly helpful when it comes to catching things like repeated words or misplaced punctuations.
When reading normally, our brains have a built-in tendency to anticipate words as we go, based on what we know would be appropriate or natural, even if those words are not there. Reading backwards will force you to slow down and help you catch even the most minute errors.
8. Read it out loud.
Reading your writing out loud will help you spot errors you might have otherwise overlooked. But reading out loud can also help you when it comes to improving your writing’s tone and rhythm.
If you want to call in some backup, there are plenty of proofreading tools and software that can help you catch some of those details.
Sites like Grammarly offer many of their features for free, which are very helpful when you want an extra comb through a text.
However, it’s best not to rely solely on these tools. There are many errors that the human eye can catch with greater accuracy than a software, so it’s always a good idea to invest some time in refining your proofreading skills.
In addition to software and online proofreading tools, you might also consider the option of hiring a freelance proofreader.
When hiring through these sites, always make sure that you ask for references, work samples, and any other material you wish to see to verify the quality of the work you’re paying for.
Before you submit your term paper, manuscript, or even just an important email, be sure to check your work carefully. No matter how skilled of a writer you are, leaving behind careless errors will make your writing look sloppy and reflect poorly on you as a professional.
Take the time to proofread properly and sweep for any little mistakes that weren’t detected in the first rounds of editing. If you need a little extra support, enlist the help of proofreading software or freelance proofreaders to get into the nitty-gritty.
What’s your process for proofreading your work? Share your tips in the comments below!