Good Proofreaders Are Made Not Born

Very few of us are good proofreaders. There are a couple of good reasons why we aren’t. Sometimes when our eyes see a mistake, our brain fills in the error with correct information. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. Maybe we think we understand the meaning of a word, or maybe the meaning of the word we used is close to what we mean but not exactly. Sometimes think we know something is correct, when it actually isn’t.

Our brains are incredible. And luckily a lot is known about human brains and how they work. Science tells us that what our eyes see our brains interpret. Sometimes the brain interprets the information and fills in what is missing. Researching this phenomenon on the internet is easy, so I won’t go into depth on it. But what proofreaders should know is that they can’t always believe what their eyes see. Trust me: if you have repeated the words you’ve written enough times in your head, you will see the words on the paper that you see in your head, not necessarily the words that are actually on the paper.

Chances are, when you were in school, a teacher told you to insert a comma where you would naturally pause in a sentence. For example, after for example – we naturally pause. For example, a comma should be inserted after an introductory element (an example of an introductory element is the phrase “for example”). Sometimes when we need a comma we don’t naturally pause. In the previous sentence, a comma is necessary after “sometimes when we need a comma” because it is a dependent clause. A dependent clause is not a complete sentence until it is combined with an independent clause. Our teaches were trying to give us good advice, but they ended up creating writers who relied on intuition instead of the rules. In the previous sentence, a comma is necessary after “advice” because this is a compound sentence joined by the conjunction “but”. That means that the words before the word “but” form a complete sentence (subject, verb, complete thought), and the words after the word “but” also form a complete sentence. Writers should know the rules of punctuation, even if they choose not to follow them (as I’ve done here – the comma is not necessary, I’ve added it for emphasis).

Proofreading is not something that poor writers do; it’s something that all writers do. Proofreading is not skimming over your writing and declaring it good. Proofreading is methodical. A proofreader looks at very specific items: spelling, word usage, repeated words, punctuation, punctuation that detracts from instead of enhancing the words’ meaning, misplaced modifiers, typographical errors (misspelling, letters or punctuation marks inserted incorrectly), sentence fragments, subject-verb agreement, parallelism, and other incorrect writing constructs. If any of these grammar terms are unfamiliar, become familiar with them.

Using certain tools makes proofreading easier. While you don’t want to completely rely on your word processing spell check program, it’s often a good place to start, as is the grammar and style program that comes with your word processing program. Review each of these in the “Options” tab to ensure the programs are alerting you correctly. For example, if first person isn’t acceptable for what you’re writing, set the program to alert you if you use I, me, we, etc. Another invaluable tool is a style guide. Style guides describe grammar and punctuation guidelines. Knowing which style guide a publication uses in invaluable.

Applying certain techniques can change the perspective you have on your work and increase the chances of your finding errors or omission in your writing or ways to improve your composition. First, give yourself some time away from the document. At least a few hours, a day or more is even better. Try reading from the last word to the first. The changing perspective can help you find errors because you are not reciting what’s already in your mind but what’s actually on the page. Maybe you will see errors more easily if you proof a printed copy instead of the computer screen. Keep track of your common errors and be especially diligent looking for them. Use Find and Replace to find them. Read your work aloud – our ears hear what our eyes miss. Have someone else read your work or read aloud to someone.

Becoming a good proofreader takes practice and patience and leads to a more polished, professional product. If your thoughts are important enough to put into words, they are also important enough to be easy-to-understand and error free.