Proofreading tips to catch those stoopid mistakes

October 26, 2009 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copy Editing 

I’m the first to admit that I’m not a great proofreader. And I’ve had my share of stoopid stupid typos and mistakes slip through.

That’s always embarrassing. Even more embarrassing for a writer.

One answer is to hire a proofreader, as I did some years ago. But that can get expensive if you write a lot. And there’s just no way to stay on schedule if you have to wait for someone to review every little thing.

Another answer is to learn a few proofreading techniques so you can catch more of your own mistakes. Here are a few that work for me.

Allow time between writing and proofing. The problem with proofing your own work is that you know what you meant to write, so your brain automatically corrects mistakes as you read. It sees your intention rather than your actual writing. By setting your work aside, you give your brain time to forget what you’ve written so you can read it fresh later.

Proofread at your peak alert time. I’m most alert in the afternoon or evening. Maybe for you it’s morning. Whenever it is, that’s the best time to proofread.

Read out loud. This forces you to slow down and focus on each word.

Use spell check. It won’t catch every error, but it will catch some. Even better, try Whitesmoke, a software program that is smarter and more thorough than the typical spell check.

Proof for one kind of error at a time. For example, read through once for punctuation, again for spelling, again for grammar, etc. It’s more time-consuming, but you’ll catch more errors this way.

Look for your most common mistakes. If you’re like me, you have certain mistakes you make repeatedly. For me, it’s omitted words or truncated words. I’ll type “a” when I meant to type “and.” Keep a list of your frequent errors and look for them specifically.

Read backwards. This is good for catching spelling errors, though for me it’s always been hard to do. The idea is to read from the end of the document to the front, one sentence at a time.

Print it before you proof it. I don’t like to print any more than I have to, but this technique works. The printed piece looks different from the words on your computer screen, so it gives your eyes something fresh to look at and the errors become more visible.

Show it to someone else. No matter how well you proof your own work, there’s no substitute for another set of eyeballs. If you need someone to do this frequently, propose a proofing partnership. You read their stuff and they read yours. It’s cheaper than paying a professional proofreader.

Do you have a favorite proofreading tip you’d like to share?

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Smart Comments

10 Comments on Proofreading tips to catch those stoopid mistakes

  1. Mr. I on Oct 26th, 2009 10:10 am
  2. Reading backwards is my favorite technique. This helps a lot in spotting mistakes.

    Looking for common mistakes is another good method. For example, I often write comemnt in place of comment!
    .-= Mr. I’s last blog … Sweet ‘n Simple HTML: Helping Html to Escape =-.

  3. Karen Marcus on Oct 29th, 2009 12:18 pm
  4. Great tips! I always build “incubation” time into my writing process so I can leave a gap between writing and proofing. I also print complex documents and review with red pen in hand.
    .-= Karen Marcus’s last blog … Tips for Writing a Nonfiction Book =-.

  5. Dean Rieck on Oct 29th, 2009 2:28 pm
  6. Oooh. Red pen. That brings back bad memories. My journalism profession (a hundred years ago) was tough. One error you get a C. Two errors a D. After that, you get an F. He literally demanded zero mistakes. Also, unlike today’s journalists, he required 2 or more sources per fact. Always used a big, fat, red marker. He didn’t mark up your work; he gutted it. The classroom looked like a slaughterhouse when he was finished.

  7. Carly Corday on Dec 31st, 2009 2:26 am
  8. Read backwards, of course. Then, read forwards (out loud or silently)with weird emphasis, stressing all those LITTLE-BITTY words: of as to be said and in on out he she it me I you too two his her hers ever they them even if a with was–you know the naughty words I mean!

    Like this:
    Bridgett glared AT HER. “Let GO OF HER hand, Charles, YOU’RE making HER perspire. SHE’S unused TO attention, obviously. SHE hasn’t HAD THIS much TO SAY IN AN entire year.”

    This works great for people who cannot make themselves stop tweaking. If proofreading leads to endless mad tweaking when you thought you were finished, you will never get the thing proofread! More tweaking = more typos. Reading with emphasis on the little words catches left-out words AND keeps you from tweaking. How’re you going to tweak something when you’re concentrating on stressing the articles, infinitives, pronouns and conjunctions?

    This method is best for that VERY…..LAST…READ. The one after which you are never going to look at it again, ever ever, because it’s finished. Do it at any stage to catch errors, but don’t make this your LAST proofread unless you know you are DONE with the manuscript/story/article/letter/blog comment.

    Too, if your worst typo tendency is only to mis-punctuate, this method isn’t for you.

  9. Dean Rieck on Dec 31st, 2009 11:27 am
  10. Carly,
    Nice point about more tweaking leading to more typos. I agree. You get to a point where you can’t see the words and your brain misses the little errors. That’s why setting copy aside for a while and coming back to it later helps clear your mind so you see the copy fresh.

  11. Carly Corday on Apr 21st, 2010 3:41 am
  12. Oh! Oh! I got another one. Just discovered while drudging away all through last night. I find that I take my stuff so seriously (it’s a very long novel), weigh it down with so much importance, that I FEAR starting the proofread for errors, knowing I’m going to hate so much of it, even though logically, it’s probably GREAT (blush). (You know how we are. If we don’t secretly think it’s great, who will?)

    Please do not laugh, even though while using this method again this evening, I am sniggering helplessly, all by myself.

    For that special proofread, when you’ve done all your revising and beautifying, and the work is so good by now that you would DIE if typos got through, read it once more like this:

    Aloud, in a high-pitched voice. Make it a cross between Rocky the Squirrel and Shelly Duval in “The Shining.” I don’t care if you’re a man, you guys do this even better than we do, and funnier. Slap out every syllable in that funny high voice, nice and loud if you like, and a tad FASTER than your normal speech, too, enough to keep you from constantly stopping to frown and worry.

    SEE if this doesn’t save you from the God-awful seriousness that bogs some of us down forever. Naturally, this too is not for everyone.

    Doesn’t mean it will be your last read-through, either. Just one of the many, for writers at their wits’ end about tweaking and typos. Being slightly silly doesn’t at all prevent me from hearing the real, intended cadence of the writing, or from spotting the typos I would MISS reading all normal and serious.

    Yes, stepping away IS necessary above all. I “hate” people who hammer out great writing at a sitting and never have to look back. My brother does that for a living. When I ask him how he does it, he doesn’t tell, he just shrugs, like why can’t everyone?

    (No need to mention that I happened on my new method by accident, during an angry little tizzy.)

  13. Stacy Ranta on Jun 16th, 2010 8:33 pm
  14. A bit late, but I thought I’d add my favorite method for finding dropped words and grammar problems. It’s also good for spotting ‘correct’ typos that spellchecker misses that change the pronunciation of the word. It’s not good for their/there/they’re, but it can help you catch stuff like typing in rats instead of rates for example.

    If you don’t have someone who can proofread handy, then get the computer to read it back to you. There’s tons of text to speech software with computer generated voices out there, even free ones that use the (very robotic) default voice in Windows. I use NaturalSoft NaturalReader. It doesn’t sound exactly like a person, but good enough for proofreading.

  15. Dean Rieck on Jun 16th, 2010 9:37 pm
  16. Stacy,
    Yeah, I’ve done that. But if the voice isn’t really good, seems like everything sounds misspelled. Thanks for the tip.

  17. Stacy Ranta on Jun 19th, 2010 1:16 am
  18. The voices are actually a standard format plugin, which you can purchase separately and work with many different software packages. There’s a ton of them available. AT&T and Cepstral are probably have the biggest libraries.

    Of you’re using NaturalReader, I’d recommend getting one of the paid versions of the software. The free one only uses Microsoft Sam, which sounds very robotic. The $50 version comes with a couple of the more natural sounding voices. You can listen to voice samples on their web site:

  19. Stacy Ranta on Jun 19th, 2010 1:17 am
  20. Whoops, sounds like I should have used it on that last post before I hit submit. Subtract an ‘are’ in there. :)