Proofread like a professional editor

By Sharon Lapkin

It’s difficult to proofread your own writing. Even professional writers are surprised when an editor finds a typo in something they’ve read over and over.

This happens because our brain already knows what we’ve formulated and conveyed through our writing – the meaning – and when we read it over our eyes compete with the version of the story that is already in our brain.

This is why it’s always best to have somebody else proofread your writing. If you can hire a professional editor or proofreader then you’ll get an even better result.

After more than 13 years editing and writing for newspapers, publishing houses and corporate businesses, I’ve developed the following process that I use when proofreading other people’s writing.

Divide the task in two

When proofreading for clients, I always go through the document twice. I divide it in two because it’s difficult to focus on the structure, flow and consistency as well as the spelling and punctuation all at the same time.

So during your first read check for the following big picture points.

  • Does it flow? 
  • Are the paragraphs and sentences structured in a cohesive and comprehensive way?
  • Is the argument or story consistent all the way through, or can you see contradictions?

If you are proofreading somebody else’s work it’s a good idea to keep your level of interference in check. Be careful not to change the meaning of anything the writer has written and, if in doubt, add a comment or question for the writer rather than arbitrarily apply an edit.

On your second reading, drill down to the word level and check spellings and punctuation. I don’t use a spell checker because they miss homophones and contextual inconsistencies. It’s usually more accurate to check spelling yourself than rely on a program to pick up errors.

I have an online dictionary subscription and I use this daily. Make a short cut to one and use it to check spellings. Take care to use a dictionary that reflects local spellings. For example, in Australia we use UK spellings and the reference used by publishing professionals is the Macquarie Dictionary.

Synonym finders are also invaluable. When a word is overused, copy it into a good synonym finder, locate a word that means the same thing and substitute it occasionally to avoid repetition.

Ask if there’s an editorial style guide

Find out if there’s an editorial style guide that applies to what you’re writing. A style guide can range from a few pages to 25 or more pages in length.

If you’re writing for a company ask them if they have a style guide. It will contain the preferred spellings and expressions they use. This is especially important for things like lists and capitalisation. I always read a client’s style guide before commencing an edit or proofread, and then refer back to it throughout the process. Every company has its editorial idiosyncrasies, and it’s best to know these upfront.

Often the client will ask you to use a commercial style guide such as the Chicago Manual of Style, or, if you’re in Australia, the Government Style Manual. This is great because it gives you a reference point.

You can also download our Textshop Editorial Style Guide as a free ebook on our home page.

Break your mindset

The object of this exercise is to find ‘fresh eyes’, so work out the mindset break that works best for you. You need your full concentration to proofread accurately, so be on alert and immediately insert a mindset break if you feel your concentration slipping.

Go for a short walk. Get a cup of coffee. Grab a bite to eat. Focus on another task for a few minutes.

Print the document you’re proofreading out in a different format. Change the font size on the screen, or view it on a different application.

Read it out loud. Read it backwards.

If it’s a multi-page report or publication, try going to the last page and working your way back. Chances are you’ll need to skim over the content again in context, but changing page direction can be a good circuit breaker.

Make your own personal checklist

Write a list of the words you frequently misspell, or grammar and punctuation rules you’re not clear about or forget.

When I first started working as a professional editor I struggled with the relative pronouns ‘which’ and ‘that’ – and when to use them. I wrote down the rule and referred to it regularly until l knew it without thinking.

Another style people often have trouble with is whether to use ‘a’ or ‘an’ before words that commence with ‘h’. It all depends on whether the ‘h’ is silent or pronounced. If it’s the latter use ‘a’. You might have to say it out loud to decide!

You’d be surprised how many books are published with typos that have been overlooked by dozens of pairs of eyes. People who work with text all day are accustomed to skimming over content and looking at the big picture, instead of drilling down to the smaller units of storytelling.

Don’t just check the words

A common mistake is to focus on the text and skip over illustrations, tables, captions, titles and headings.

Always set time aside to go through tables and infographics properly. Don’t glance over them; check every word and number.

Published documents need to look professional and incorrectly formatted pages can really undo otherwise good work.

  • Are the headings the same size and font?
  • Are the spaces between paragraphs even?
  • Do all tables, infographics and illustrations have captions?
  • Are the page numbers consecutive?
  • Do all the links work?

Consistency, consistency, consistency

Believe it or not, consistency is the most important aspect of a professional editor’s job.

Without consistency the content is fragmented, unstable and unreliable.

Inconsistency is distracting and makes the reader feel uncomfortable, and if there’s too much of it they lose trust in what they’re reading.

A writer needs to do a number of things to gain a reader’s trust and convince them they know what they’re talking about.

Spell something in the same way every time.

For example – don’t write ‘I co-ordinated the teamwork on Tuesday, so Annabelle could take a break from coordinating.’

Be consistent with punctuation too.

For example – don’t switch between single and double quotation marks (unless you’re working with emphasis [single marks] and dialogue [double marks]), and don’t capitalise Director in one instance and lower case it in another when it’s used in the same way.

Take care with the names of people and organisations.

Find out the correct spelling and check it is consistent throughout. It’s always a good idea to Google the names of companies and organisations, and write them exactly as they do.

Consistency extends beyond text and tables. Check layout too because font type and size, colours and formatting all look more professional when they’re consistent.

Abbreviations and acronyms

Generally for abbreviations and acronyms we spell them out in the first instance and then use the shortened form from that point on.

For example – the Australian Tax Office (ATO) is busy doing tax returns this time of year, so when I phoned the ATO they placed me in a queue.

In longer reports and documents this practice can get messy. If there have been multiple writers you often find that acronyms and abbreviations are written out in full and in short form as well. It can be quite a task to make them all consistent.

To make it easier and more accurate, I use ‘Find’ and ‘Replace’ in Word to locate and standardise abbreviations and acronyms. Never use ‘Change all’ because you can quickly lose control of the document. Do it manually and check each change individually.

Find your own rhythm

Take note of your own common oversights.

What are your weak points? What are the things you’re likely to miss when proofreading?

Make a checklist of everything you need to check, such as the list below, and add your own reminders.

Professional proofreaders are thorough and methodical in their work, and being aware of your own grammar and punctuation weaknesses is essential. Proofreading is not like an exam – you can stop and check anything you’re not sure about and revisit things you’ve marked up for correction.

If you’re not working in a Word document paste the text into one and use ‘Find and replace’ to check you’ve caught and amended all text you need to correct.

Lastly, don’t rush proofreading. The effort you put in will be obvious in the published document. It takes time to proofread like a professional, and it’s better to work a little more slowly in the beginning to ensure you don’t miss anything.

That small error you miss in a proofread can become a major eyesore after publication.

Proofreading checklist


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