Business writing essentials

How to proofread a document [with free proofreading checklist PDF]

9 minute read

Proofreading properly isn’t as easy as it might first appear. You’re constantly fighting with your eyes and brain, both of which want to tell you that everything on the page is just fine.

One problem is that our brains are actually a bit too clever. Did you know that as long as the first and last letters of a word are in the right place, the middle can be a complete shambles and chances are you’ll still be able to understand it?

Ltlite wnoedr taht tpyos are otefn msiesd, wulndo’t you arege?

And as the writer of a document, it’s particularly hard to spot any mistakes in it. You know what you meant to say, so your brain will conveniently hop over missing words, typos and jumbled sentences. (This is why, in an ideal world, someone else would proofread your work – and you’d proof theirs.)

But, tricky or not, it is a critical step. The result of giving it a miss can be anything from mild embarrassment in front of colleagues to the loss of an unimpressed prospect – or landing in legal or financial hot water because of an overlooked error.

Before we go on to the how-to, let’s briefly clarify what proofreading is – and what it isn’t.


What is proofreading?

Proofreading is:

  • about ensuring consistency and accuracy
  • essential – it’s a matter of professional reputation (and more)
  • the last line of defence – the buck stops with you.

And let’s not forget, it’s also:

  • hard work – it can be pedantic, exacting, tiring and repetitive.


What it isn't

Proofreading is not:

  • editing
  • an excuse to rewrite
  • a ‘quick look’.

These caveats are particularly worth noting if you are proofreading someone else’s work. Establish for certain what they are expecting you to do: do they want a pure proofread or editing suggestions as well? Note too that editing and proofing are technically two different things, and with good reason: your brain works best focusing on one at a time.

Whether you’re proofreading your own work or a colleague’s, to do it effectively, you need to repress the urge to skip, skim and hope for the best. It’s time to knuckle down and process every word. These proofreading tips will see you through.


Proofreading techniques for perfect results


1. Get some distance

If you try and proofread straight after you finish writing, you will be blind to your typos and everything will appear exactly as you expect it to. So take a break, do something else and preferably leave it overnight. Then come back to it fresh.


2. Set up for success

Speaking of fresh, aim to proofread at a time when you will be. Work out what this means for you and your circadian rhythms, but morning is generally your best bet.

Make sure you have everything you need to hand: a pencil for pointing, a ruler or blank paper to place below each line (so you’re not distracted by the text ahead), and a list of what to look out for. If your company has a style guide, have that at your elbow or open on your computer too. It will clarify your organisation’s take on language or formatting issues that have no official right or wrong. For example, whether your company uses UK or US spelling, when you should capitalise job titles and how to punctuate bullet points.


3. Print it out (when it counts)

Working on a hard copy is still the most surefire way to spot errors in a document. Print it out (on scrap paper), walk away from the distractions of your desk and give it all your attention.

Of course, this is not the most environmentally friendly approach, so you might choose to save it for the most business-critical documents.

An alternative is to save the document as a PDF or send the email to yourself. Looking at the same words in a different format (even in your own inbox) helps to reset your eye and spot errors you might otherwise miss.


4. Be methodical

Take the text line by line, using the ruler or blank paper as a guide (to cover the upcoming text) and pointing to each word with your pencil or stylus.

This is important to counteract how you normally read. Usually, your eyes don’t travel smoothly over everything – they move in little jumps (known as saccades) and fixate only on key words, while your mind fills in the blanks.

If you’re proofreading onscreen, you can still use the pencil-pointing technique – and try the paper guide too.

Go through the document once for sense, a second time for technical accuracy and (if you’ve time) once more for luck. Got a short document? Read it backwards to better spot typos.

If you prefer to watch rather than read, you can also check out the guidance (and some of the office staff looking sheepish) in this video:


5. Read it aloud

Working from home or in a quiet office? Read the document out to yourself. You’ll trip over the awkward bits in a way that you didn’t when simply tracking the words in your mind, and you’ll notice missing or extra words.

Better still, get someone else to read it out to you, or use text-to-speech technology in Word, Google Docs or Adobe.


6. Make your mark

Covering documents in comments, annotations and scribbles can soon get messy – and make it very difficult for the writer to work through. That’s why official proof-correction marks exist.

The industry-recognised mark-up symbols in the UK (and increasingly around the world) come from the British Standards Institution (BSI). They work by marking up the text itself with these symbols, then making a corresponding mark in the margin to draw attention to and clarify the correction.

This might seem fussy or old-fashioned, but there’s good sense behind this long-established practice. It is an efficient and concise shorthand that communicates a lot of information in a small amount of space.

Of course, it only works if it is a shared language, so it will need to be embraced across your team or organisation.


BSI proof-correction mark-up symbols for ‘insert’, ‘substitute’ and ‘delete’

A few of the key mark-up symbols. You can order a laminated copy of the full set at the BSI website.

If you’re working on a PDF, you can use the Adobe mark-up tools to highlight your corrections – and be careful to use them consistently, to help both you and your colleagues.

For example:

  • For changes to the text, use the Insert text, Strikethrough and Add note functions.
  • Use callouts for instructions on formatting​.
  • For queries, use the Highlight tool and create an accompanying pop-up note to add your question.


In Word and Google Docs, you have the alternative option of Track Changes (this is the ‘Suggesting’ function in Google Docs), although these are arguably better suited to editing than proofreading.


7. Beware missing the obvious

Give special attention to title pages, headings, subheadings, even subject lines – it’s too easy to assume that there couldn’t possibly be mistakes in the large text. But that’s where overlooked errors will howl the loudest.

Be careful around line endings too – it’s surprisingly easy to miss words repeated at the end of one and the beginning of the next.


8. Know the common culprits

Being aware of repeat-offender errors means you can be poised and ready to catch them. Once you’ve been proofreading for a while, you may start to keep your own list. In the meantime, here are some key common mistakes to keep your eyes peeled for:


Matching verbs and subjects: the verb or ‘doing word’ in the sentence needs to be in the right form (singular or plural) to go with the person or thing doing it. For example:

The summary of various points comes at the end of the chapter.​

The ‘summary’ is the subject and is singular. So the verb ‘comes’ is in the singular form rather than in the plural form (‘come’).​

Beware collective nouns, such as ‘public‘, ‘committee’, ‘board’, ‘audience’, ‘team’: these can be either singular or plural, but need to be treated as either one consistently. Similarly, company names are typically treated as singular but not always, so check your organisation’s style guide.

Comma splice: This is a specific kind of run-on sentence, where a comma is used between what could be two full sentences. Use a semi-colon or full stop instead, or add a word like ‘for’, ‘and’, ‘but’ or ‘so’ after the comma.



Common slip-ups include:

If you feel like you could use a refresher, it’s worth brushing up on your punctuation and grammar to check you’re on top of the rules.


Often-confused words

These words sound the same as each other but are spelled differently and have different meanings, so do your best to keep them straight:

And while spelling and grammar checkers have come a very long way (with many continuing to improve all the time, thanks to machine learning), still never assume they are infallible. Continue to look out for misspelled words and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently).

And if you know you have your own blind spots, keep a list of those handy.


9. Look over layout

Depending at what stage you’re doing the proofreading, you may also need to pay attention to the layout and formatting of the document. Here, keep your eyes peeled for things like:

  • captions – are they on the right items?
  • the contents page – do headings/page numbers match actual copy?
  • consistency of style – bold, italics etc
  • widows (these are lone lines at top of a page) and orphans (these are lone words on a line)
  • page numbers and other footer or header material – check they are accurate and in the right order
  • headings – check relevance and for repetition, and that the levels of heading are correct and consistent
  • numbering – check the sequence.


10. Don’t forget the finer details

As well as looking for typos, incorrect or missing words, dodgy punctuation and suspect grammar, give the facts a final once-over.

Are the decimal points in the right place? Have you written millions where you meant billions? Have you spelled the customer’s name right – and right every time? And check telephone numbers by calling them. It’s surprisingly easy to transpose numbers when writing them.


Practice makes perfect

Finally, remember that – like most things – proofreading is a skill you can develop. The more you proofread, the sharper your eye will become.

Need to upskill your team in proofreading to ensure consistency and accuracy in your output? We run tailored in-company proofreading courses which include bespoke, practical exercises built using your own content. Get in touch if you think we can help.


Image credit: 9nong / Shutterstock



Business writing essentials

Perfect proofreading every time: free checklist

Get your free step-by-step guide to perfectly proofread documents.

Catie joined Emphasis with an English literature and creative writing degree and a keen interest in what makes language work. Having researched, written, commissioned and edited dozens of articles for the Emphasis blog, she now knows more about the intricacies of effective professional writing than she ever thought possible.

She produced and co-wrote our online training programme, The Complete Business Writer, and these days oversees all the Emphasis marketing efforts. And she keeps office repartee at a suitably literary level.

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