That’s it, you’re finished! You’ve researched and written something great. You’ve just finished writing it and you’re relieved, proud and ready to hit ‘Publish’ – right? Wrong. You need to proofread it first. Have you checked there aren’t any humdinger typos lurking within your otherwise wonderful prose? If not, you should. You should always take the time to proofread your own content – and here are my top tips for doing so!
Why you should proofread your own content
I’m always amazed by the amount of content I read that, if not littered with typos, at least offers up one or two choice morsels for the discerning, pedantic reader to feast upon. Except it’s not actually just linguistic pedants like myself who notice these mistakes – many readers stumble over typos and errors in content, even if their profession has nothing to do with words. And they not only notice, they also care.
In an article for the BBC, Sean Coughlan writes about an interview with an online entrepreneur who claims that spelling mistakes probably result in millions of pounds worth of business being lost each week. The reason? Apparently, ‘sales figures suggest misspellings put off consumers who could have concerns about a website's credibility’. In a nutshell, your typos could lose you customers, readers and, as a result, money. So, yeah – those little mistakes really are worth trying to iron out!
Whilst proofreading your own content is not the easiest thing in the world, as you’re often too involved to be critical enough, it is doable. However, it involves a lot more than simply running the spelling and grammar checker. There are specific techniques and tricks that you can learn to implement. Intrigued? Then let’s get on with it.
What to look for when proofreading
Ok, so first things first: what are you actually looking for when you’re proofreading? These are the basic areas you’re going to be examining:
In particular, you need to keep an eye (or, even better, both eyes!) out for the following:
Some of the most common spelling and punctuation mistakes. Some examples are: they’re/their/there; your/you’re; two/to/too; its/it’s. In fact, be aware of any word where there are two variations in spelling, such as: practice/practise (in British spelling); aloud/allowed; complimentary/complementary.
Words you personally struggle with. Everyone has words they stumble over every time. Make a list of yours and check these words in all the content you write. (One of mine is ‘necessary’!)
Inconsistencies within the document. For this, a style guide is particularly helpful. If you aren’t working to one already, create one and check you’re sticking to it. It’s a lot easier to ensure consistency if you’re working to a specific set of rules. Examples of things you should decide on include: your use of the Oxford comma (the last comma in a list – compare ‘I like toast, cereal, and coffee for breakfast.’ with ‘I like toast, cereal and coffee for breakfast.’); single or double quotation marks; ‘z’ or ‘s’ spellings (i.e. US or British spelling rules); capitalisation of titles; en (–) or em (—) dashes.
Common formatting and punctuation mistakes, such as extra spaces between words (note the double space between ‘extra’ and ‘spaces’ back there) and missing full stops at the ends of paragraphs. Look closely at compound adjectives (adjectives made up of more than one word, such as ‘five-minute’ or ‘vegan-friendly’). Make sure that, if used before the noun (‘a five-minute walk’), they are hyphenated (using a hyphen not a dash). If a compound adjective includes an adverb, such as ‘beautifully written’, it does not need a hyphen. As with anything, if you’re not sure about a grammar or puncutation rule, look it up – or ask a pedant like me!
What format to proofread in
Ok, great, so that’s what to look for, or a précis of it, at least. But what is the best format to proofread your own content in? When you’re proofreading, you’re aiming to distance yourself from the content, put on your proofreading hat and get critical. This is, of course, especially hard when you’ve written the content yourself. So you’re trying to trick your brain into looking at the text in a new light. Here are some things that may help you achieve that:
Print your content so you can proofread a hard copy of it. As you’ve most likely written it on a computer, reading it from a piece of paper allows for a different reading experience. It’s also a nice computer break for your eyes!
Change the font. Whilst writing, your eyes have become accustomed to looking at your content in a certain font. Reading your words in a different font is another great way to distance yourself from the content. (Just don’t pick ‘Wingdings’ – you can distance yourself too much!)
Change the size of the text or margins. As with changing the font, this again makes your content look different, which can help you to read it in a different headspace from the one you wrote it in.
Where to proofread
So you know you need to proofread your content, you’ve got the text prepared and ready to go – but where should you choose to do it? This might sound like an insignificant point, but think about how focused you’ll need to be and imagine trying to work like that on a noisy train during your morning commute… yup, less than optimal. Instead, I’d suggest the following:
Proofread somewhere quiet, where you won’t be distracted by colleagues, emails, phone calls or anything else. You need to be able to fully concentrate. Typos can be really easy to miss, so just a short lapse of concentration can result in you missing one.
Proofread somewhere tidy. Proofreading is the art of tidying up content as much as you can. In order to do this effectively, you need a tidy, organised mindset – so trying to proofread at a messy desk piled high with papers and coffee cups is not the best idea. Have a quick tidy of your space, and you’ll get your head in the right zone!
Don’t proofread your content where you wrote it. If possible, find somewhere to sit and proofread that is not the desk at which you sat to write. Again, this distances you from the writing process and is another way to help you take on the role of proofreader as opposed to writer. And a change of scenery is always nice, no matter what you’re working on!
When to proofread
So when is the best time for this change of scenery?
As a bare minimum, I would recommend that, once you’ve proclaimed your article, blog post or website copy ‘finished’, you wait a few hours before sitting down to proofread. If you do it right off the back of writing, you are still so involved in the content that you won’t be able to see the would from the trees. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one!)
Even better, wait until the next day to proofread. This ensures you have some distance from the writing process and allows you to come at it with a fresh head.
If you want to give yourself the absolute best chance of getting into a proofreading mindset, wait for a few days or even a week. The more important the document, the longer I’d recommend waiting – and the more you should consider asking a professional proofreader to take a look.
How to proofread
Right, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty. How are you going to go about finding those pesky little mistakes? Well, here are a few tricks to keep up your sleeve:
Read slowly. Really slowly. Read each and every word, and make sure you look at each and every piece of punctuation.
Reading so slowly can be hard. It might help to read your content aloud, as this can slow down your reading speed.
If reading aloud doesn’t help, try reading backwards. For example, you could read the last paragraph, then the second to last paragraph and so on, until you get back to the opening paragraph. Alternatively, read the last word, then the second to last word and so on, reading backwards until you reach the first word. Both of these tricks can help you to focus on the words themselves rather than your content as a whole.
Proofread in stages. On your first pass, focus on spelling. On the second, examine the punctuation. Third time around, check the grammar. Working like this means that you are not trying to focus on too much at once, which should help you catch more mistakes. It can also be helpful to make a list of all the things you need to check and then tick each item off as you do it.
Proofread with a pen or pencil in hand. There are two ways this can help. Firstly, you can point to each word as you read it, which will slow you down. Secondly, you can mark mistakes and queries as you go; you can then come back to decide on anything you’re unsure about at the end.
So, as the author, you’ve proofread your own content as best you can. Chances are you’ve eliminated quite a few mistakes and improved the quality of your work no end! That said, a second pair of eyes is always worth investing in. Someone who didn’t write a piece of content will most likely be even more critical and find things the author didn’t spot, simply because they’re more impartial. So if you can, ask a colleague, fellow writer, friend or professional proofreader to check your work one final time. And then, I promise, you can finally hit ‘Publish’ and send your words out into the big wide world – and do so confidently!