Strategies to Proofread Effectively

Proofreading
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Acclaimed author Mark Twain had much to say on the topics of writing and language during his life, and his words are still quoted regularly today. The quote, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug," for example, is one of Twain's most well-known observations. Ironically, however, it is often misquoted and lightning is misspelled twice as lightening.

Twain himself had little patience for such errors and vehemently advocated for proofreading. As once an old newspaper reporter himself, Twain knew full well how hard it is to proofread your own work, but he also knew that proofreaders can't always catch all of your mistakes. As he said in a letter to Sir Walter Bessant in February 1898:

"[W]hen you think you are reading proof, ... you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes and vacancies but you don't know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along. Sometimes—but not often enough—the printer's proof-reader saves you—and offends you ... and [you] find that the insulter is right."

So how does one proofread one's own work effectively, catching all of the mistakes without having to rely on someone else to do so? Here are ten strategies for doing just that.

Tips for Proofreading Effectively

There's no foolproof formula for perfect proofreading every time—as Twain realized, it's just too tempting to see what we meant to write rather than the words that actually appear on the page or screen. But these 10 tips should help you see (or hear) your errors before anybody else does.

  1. Give it a rest.
    If time allows, set your text aside for a few hours (or days) after you've finished composing it, then proofread it with fresh eyes. Rather than remembering the perfect paper you meant to write and projecting this onto your work, you're more likely to see what you've actually written and be able to improve it.
  2. Look for one type of problem at a time.
    Read through your text several times, concentrating first on sentence structures, then word choice, then spelling, and finally punctuation. As the saying goes, if you look for trouble, you're bound to find it.
  3. Double-check facts, figures, and proper names.
    In addition to reviewing for correct spelling and usage, make sure that all the information in your text is accurate and up to date.
  4. Review a hard copy.
    Print out your text and review it line by line. Rereading your work in a different format may help you catch errors that you previously missed.
  5. Read your text aloud.
    Or better yet, ask a friend or colleague to read it aloud. You may hear a problem (a faulty verb ending or missing word, for example) that you haven't been able to see.
  6. Use a spellchecker.
    A reliable spellchecker can help you catch repeated words, reversed letters, and many other common slip-ups—these tools are certainly not goof-proof, but they can weed out simple mistakes.
  7. Trust your dictionary.
    Your spellchecker or autocorrect can help you make sure that the words you've written are written correctly, but they can't help you choose the right word. Use a dictionary when you're not sure what word to use. If you're not sure whether sand is in a desert or a dessert, for example, crack open a dictionary.
  8. Read your text backward.
    Another way to catch spelling errors is to read backward, from right to left, starting with the last word in your text. Doing this will help you focus on individual words rather than on sentences so that you can't use context as a crutch.
  9. Create your own proofreading checklist.
    Keep a list of the types of mistakes you commonly make and refer to this the next time you proofread. Hopefully, this will help you stop making the same mistakes.
  10. Ask for help.
    Invite someone else to proofread your text after you have reviewed it. A new set of eyes may immediately spot errors that you've overlooked, but if you've followed the rest of these steps closely, your proofreader shouldn't find much at all.