How to proofread a document

Proofreading isn’t easy. You’re constantly fighting with your eyes and brain, both of which want to tell you that everything on the page is just fine. But to proofread well, you need to repress the urge to skip, skim and hope for the best; it’s time to knuckle down and process every word, writes Cathy Relf (who should know).

1. Take a break
If you try and proofread straight after you finish writing, not only will you be blind to your typos, but you’ll think all your turns of phrase come across exactly the way you meant them. Take a break, do something else, preferably leave it overnight. Then come back to it fresh.

2. Don’t rely on spellcheck
If you’ve ended your email with ‘kind retards’ instead of ‘kind regards’, spellcheck will think that’s just fine and dandy. Don’t trust it. Make sure you read every word, and if you’re at all unsure about whether you have the right word, look it up. It’s handy to keep a good online dictionary, such as Collins (our favourite) or Oxford, in your bookmarks bar.

3. Suspect the usual suspects
Watch out for these ten most missed mistakes, such as affect and effect and compliment and complement. Print out the list and keep it handy for when you’re proofreading.

4. Print it out
Reading on hard copy is the best way to spot errors. Print your document out, walk away from the distractions of your desk and sit down with just pen and paper. Or, if you don’t have a printer, export it as a PDF. Looking at the same words in a different format helps you spot errors that you hadn’t seen before.

5. Check your facts
As well as looking for typos, incorrect or missing words, dodgy punctuation and suspect grammar, give your facts a final check. Are the decimal points in the right place? Have you written millions where you meant billions? Have you spelt the customer’s name right – and right every time?

6. Take it line by line
When you read, your eye flits all over the place. But to proofread effectively, you need to find a way to make sure you read every word. You also need to see the words in the order they appear rather than the order your brain expects them to. Try using a ruler or blank sheet of paper to cover the rest of the text, forcing your eye to move along one line at a time, and a pen to point at each word.

7. Read it aloud
Read it out to yourself. You’ll trip over the awkward bits in a way that you didn’t when reading, and notice missing or extra words. Better still, get someone else to read it out to you, or use Wordtalk, a free plug-in for Word.

8. Once more, with feeling
Read it once for facts, once for language and once more for luck. Pay extra attention to titles, subtitles and headings – your eye often skips over these and assumes they’re fine when they’re not. Read them backwards to be doubly sure.

9. Get a second opinion
Ask someone else to proofread it, too – someone eagle eyed and straight talking, who will tell you if your witty turns of phrase leave them puzzled or just plain cold. If you don’t trust your own eye and you can’t find a suitable colleague, consider employing a professional proofreader for particularly important documents.

10. Practice makes perfect
The more you proofread, the sharper your eye will become.

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