Proofreading is the act of re-reading your work, searching for issues, and making any last minute changes. Proofreading can focus on grammar issues like subject-verb agreement, mechanics issues like parallelism, punctuation issues like comma usage, or even style issues like word choice and tone. Proofreading is a critical, but often neglected part of effective writing.
When we proofread a document, we are looking for small errors such as misspellings or accidental omissions.
Have you ever sent off an email message or submitted a school paper only to later discover that it was full of typographical errors? How could you have missed all of these errors?
The answer seems to have something to do with how our brains work. Our brains recognize patterns. This is part of the reason why people who read frequently tend to read faster than infrequent readers: their brains more speedily recognize and process patterns of words on the page.
Texts that we write ourselves are the texts that we can read fastest of all, because our brains are already deeply familiar with the patterns of our words.
But what helps us as readers can hurt us as writers. When we read our own work, our brains tend to quickly see the patterns that we put on the page rather than the individual words. We see what we meant to write, and not necessarily what we actually wrote.
To our readers, however, who are not as familiar with our words, the errors are more apparent—and they detract from our credibility as authors.
To proofread effectively, we need to distance ourselves from the text and see it as our readers will see it.
Towards this end, consider the following proofreading strategies:
- Allow as much time as possible between when you complete a document and when you proofread it. For example, if you finish writing in the evening, wait until morning to proofread.
- Print out the document before attempting to proofread it. If this isn’t an option, try enlarging the text size on your screen. This larger view will make errors somewhat easier to see.
- Read the document aloud. Read slowly. Make sure you are reading the text itself rather than reading from memory.
- Read the document backwards—not word-by-word, but sentence-by-sentence. Again, read slowly.
- Ask a friend or family member to read your paper out loud to you while you silently read along on a second copy of the paper. (This two-reader method is used by many professional proofreaders.)
- Run your paper through a text-to-speech converter, and have a computer read it to you. The computer voice defamiliarizes your words and sets a steady pace that prevents you from skimming over sections of text that you know well. Free web-based online text-to-speech converters can be found at http://www.text2speech.org/. Two text-to-speech mobile apps are iSpeech (iOS) and Classic Text to Speech (Android).
Once you believe a draft conveys the basic information you want your readers to understand, you can begin attacking it at the sentence level. After working hard to develop the substance of a message, you may be weary of it and eager to turn it over to your instructor. If possible, set the draft aside and work on another assignment before trying to edit it.
Proofreading @ the Sentence Level
The following techniques can help you critically evaluate your document at the sentence level:
- Don’t try to copyedit a document all at once. Instead, alternate editing with other activities. For example, try editing after you first wake up, then after lunch, and then before dinner. Are you surprised that you can keep finding ways to improve the document?
- There are three strategies you can use to help ignore the content of your message and concentrate solely on grammatical, mechanical, and formatting errors:
- Try reading your document sentence by sentence backwards
- Place sheets of paper above and below each sentence in the document as you read through it
- Place slashes between each sentence and then evaluate each one separately
- If you are using a personal computer, try printing the document with a different font, such as size 14 or size 10 point instead of the normal size 12.
- Look for mistakes to cluster. When you find one error in paragraph seven, for example, carefully examine the surrounding sentences to see if you had a lapse of concentration when you wrote and copyedited that section.
- Look for errors that you often make, such as sentence fragments or subject-verb agreement.