I am one of the world’s worst at proof-reading my own work. I’m quite good at revising, but not so good at the final checks. Regular readers of this blog will sometimes spot the odd proofreading omission – the good news is that I usually pick it up, albeit often after a few days 😦 .
Proof-reading isn’t an easy thing to do – most writers are inclined to see what we thought we’d written, rather than what we actually have. We miss the odd spelling mistake, missing comma, over long sentence, the too often repeated word. It’s hardly surprising we miss these slip ups as most pieces of writing that are ready for proof-reading have been through multiple drafts and revisions. The proof-reading trick is to try to make the text appear unfamiliar and strange, almost as if someone else had written it.
So here’s a few tactics that can help:
- Leave the text for a week or so before reading it. It is then less close and immediate and the time may allow you to get some distance on it.
- Print it out. If you’re used to reading the text on the screen, then printing it out can give you a new view.
- Print it out in a new font. You’ve looked at the text in your usual font for long time – changing it might provide you with a new look.
- Read the text aloud. This can help you to hear klutzy syntax, missing and misplaced words … and you might also spot commas and full stops in the wrong places. However, like reading, writers often say what they think they have written so this isn’t fool proof! One way to deal with this is to
- Ask someone else to read the paper for errors. Get them to mark the things you need to check. If you co-author, then this is something that you can do for each other.
- Use a ruler to guide your reading, either silent or out loud. The ruler forces you to read line by line rather than skip through.
- Use the computer to check for obvious grammar and spellos. Even if it picks up things that you don’t agree to, it still allows you to look at selected bits of text more closely.
- Circle all of the full stops and check each one. This forces you to look at whether the stops are in the right place but it also shows you sentences, short and long. Holding the paper at arms length allows you to see how many sentences you’ve crammed into one paragraph – are there too many or too few do you think?
- Check your known common mistakes – keep a list of the things you do incorrectly and use this as a check list
The most important thing of course is not to rush. Rushing almost always means that there are things you won’t see. Taking time to proofread is particularly important if you are sending a paper into a journal or submitting a thesis. Sloppy proofreading gives the critical reader the impression of very sloppy scholarship. This is not something you want someone who sits in judgment on your work to think. So do, do make the time it takes … Proof-reading matters.
Do you have any additional tactics that you use with proof-reading?
Reading aloud works for me.
I liked circling the full stops, I shall give that one a try for sure.
Hmm, one thought that came when reading the list. Recently I had to find a way to get the computer to read text out aloud, which is easily possible on the iPad, and also on the Mac. I wonder whether this can be used for proof reading. Not reading per se, but at least for hearing how the text sounds. Either while parsing the text while it is read, or just closing one’s eyes and listening to the text.
As for other tips — when you correct the text on paper and then change it digitally, I love to cross out my corrections on the paper. It allows me to easily continue if I am interrupted and it is very … satisfying.
Yes Ive wondered about the computer reading function too. Interested to know if anyone’s tried it.
I use this. It’s excellent. I have an expressive reading voice, and can often ‘cover up’ weaker writing with inflection, rhythm and pauses. The stilted, monotonous computer voice is unforgiving on overcomplex sentences or clunky phrases. Plus it only reads what’s on the page, so repeated or missing words do get picked up!
Must try it!
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Reading the text backwards can flag up spelling mistakes, typos, extra spaces and other formatting idiosyncracies like indenting, bullets, etc. The idea is to work your eye from the bottom right corner of the page to the top left corner. This makes the text look SO unfamiliar that you do actually notice mistakes! It also forces you to not read for content (i.e. editing) so you don’t actually think about your ideas, just the marks on the page. I tend to do this as a last check, though, after doing the things you list; or if I can’t access spell-check for any reason. And definitely after not having looked at the text for at least 24 hours.
But all is this good practice is in my fantasy world of always being ahead of a deadline!
I admire anyone who can do this. I’ve tried and it doesn’t work for me at all…
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my proof reading skills are also in the ‘not great’ category.
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Another great post from Pat Thomson (University of Nottingham) with some great advice on proofreading drafts.
Hi Pat – this post came at the perfect time as I’m revising my own work and preparing it for submission.
I’ve tried some of the techniques above but inevitably, miss some mistakes. Have you ever sent out your work for someone to do the copy edit on it? Or does going through this checklist eliminate the need for proof reading to be outsourced?
No. But every one of my books has been proof read by a professional. If you pay I think you have to be clear with the brief the person has, copy edit or proofing.
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Practical tips for effective proof-reading – by Pat Thomson
Great tips! I also find change of place to be helpful, seems to work for me I n a similar way to having some time away from the paper – so if I’ve been writing at my office desk then I’ll take the print-out to proof in a different room, or the library, etc.
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Thanks for this Pat. I’ve always liked the reading out loud technique. I encourage my students to do it. They must read slowly and purposefully, only pause where the punctuation allows etc. Works a treat.
Pat, good tips as always. My wife just gave me another nugget today. When revising a chapter, she suggested that I work backwards and start with the final paragraphs. She said it appears (she always edits my writing) that I “run out of steam” when I am editing my work. She was right; today I had a lot more energy to devote to tightening up my conclusion and this time when I “ran out of steam”, I was at my intro!!
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In addition to those mentioned already, I read it backwards, word by word, to catch typos (words spelt correctly but not the right word). Takes awhile but worth it, especially if the work to be submitted has a high prestige factor.
We generally anticipate what we are about to read, so don’t always see those little typo mistakes.
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Some writers find examining the text backwards beginning with the last word helpful.
Not only use the ruler, but do it from the end, line by line – that’ll stop you just reading.
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