7 best ways to become a better proofreader Contributed To By Daphne Gray-Grant
Daphne Gray-Grant
Daphne Gray-Grant is former features editor at a major metropolitan daily newspaper, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writer, editor and writing coach. Follow Here For Her Website where you can sign up for her free weekly newsletter or buy her popular book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster.  
By Daphne Gray-Grant
Published on March 11, 2012

This week's column is about mistakes and I am supremely well qualified to write it. I'm the idiot who once let an email subject line read, "Why you should ignore your grammer checker."

This week's column is about mistakes and I am supremely well qualified to write it. I'm the idiot who once let an email subject line read, "Why you should ignore your grammer checker."

I hope the correct spelling of the word "grammar" in the body of the email was enough to convince readers I did know how to spell the word, and that the error was a result of working too quickly rather than shameful ignorance. It made me feel better (but only slightly) to receive an email from a friend that same morning saying he'd found the following correction in a recent Time Magazine:

"Setting the record straight: We referred to 'cotton sheared from sheep.' Sheep produce wool, of course, not cotton..."

My friend wrote: "This (a) confirms my sense that proofreading is a dangerous job, and (b) is a reminder that quality control is falling part everywhere." Indeed. I've also nearly been humiliated (but caught myself just in time) by:

  • Author names (I almost called William Strunk "Edmund")

  • Book titles (I'd misremembered the title for one of my favourite books, Too Close to the Falls as On the Way to the Falls.)

  • Song lyrics (I just about botched the snowflakes part of My Favourite Things.)

I live in a particularly fragile glass house, writing, as I do, about writing. But mistakes and typos can make anyone look dumb. When you're writing quickly or prolifically, it's hard to catch every error (that's why your daily newspaper is riddled with 'em.) But you can improve your odds of success with these...

7 tips for improving your proofreading:

1) Try to allow at least one day to pass after you finish writing and before you start proofing. This will give you the necessary distance to catch unconscious mistakes -- such as typing now for know or triker for trickier.

2) The human eye catches more errors in text that is printed out, than on screen. Print out your work before proofing it.

3) If there is some reason that prevents you from printing, use a distinctive typeface and bump up the point size before proofing. When I am forced to proof on screen, I use Papyrus 20 point -- this makes it much easier to catch errors.

4) Read excruciatingly slowly and have a healthy sense of doubt about every word you have written. You might even want to pretend the text comes from someone you dislike and are eager to prove wrong. Question all "facts," paying particular attention to names (people, books, movies, songs), addresses, titles and dates. Be aware that the single most common mistake is to mismatch days with dates. (Example: Wednesday, May 1, when in fact it is Tuesday, May 1.)

5) Be especially careful with the big, "invisible" stuff. A few years ago, I nearly signed off on a brand new client publication. The problem? The client's name was misspelled at the top of the front page! Three of us, including a professional proofreader, had managed to miss this hugely embarrassing error. Fortunately, someone else caught the mistake before it was too late. My printing rep laughed and said people frequently proofread the text and then forget to double-check logos and headers.

6) Proofread more than once. Professional proofreaders often read at least once backwards. That is, they begin at the end and work back through the piece paragraph by paragraph or even line by line. Even better, if you have time and a willing friend, share proofreading tasks. (It's easier to catch mistakes in someone else's work.)

7) Read your work aloud at least once. You'll catch a lot more errors this way.

Finally, this isn't a tip but instead a heartfelt piece of advice. Be humble. Even professional proofreaders make mistakes. You won't catch everything. If you've done your best, apologize and move on. We're human beings, not robots.