What is the main action a writer takes when proofreading?
Well, content proofreading is simple.
That may seem like a sacrilegious statement coming from me. I’m someone who’s spent years justifying to condescending critics that proofreading is a specialized skill.
But I’m going to show you how easy it is to review your writing like a professional proofreader — even if you only have a short amount of time to proofread.
These techniques will help you spot and correct errors in your content that you’ve previously overlooked.
The difference between proofreading and just reading
There’s a common misconception that proofreading is the same activity as reading.
Why would someone pay a professional proofreader when anyone who knows how to read could point out mistakes in a piece of writing?
This attitude can be an obstacle for freelance proofreaders looking for work.
But ultimately, as many proofreaders discover, you don’t want to attract writers who “don’t get it.” It’s more effective to speak to those who already understand the value of a thorough, professional proofreading.
It’s a lesson you can apply to copywriting strategies for any type of digital business:
Appeal to people who already want and understand the value of your product or service — the right prospects. Don’t try to win over people who are not interested in what you do — the wrong prospects.
One reason I love the proofreading techniques in this post is that they’re clear examples of why the activity of proofreading is unlike just reading.
Now, take off your writer beret. It’s time to put on your proofreader fedora, so you can view your writing like someone who has never seen it before.
Is it important for a writer to proofread?
Whenever someone questions the importance of proofreading, my go-to response is:
“Pubic relations is quite different from public relations.”
We all sometimes make a typo that omits or changes a letter in a word. A typo like that is difficult to spot when the mistake is still an actual word (or words). It’s the obvious reason why the action of proofreading is an important part of the writing process.
Just last week, I wrote “head lice” instead of “headline.” Again, two completely different things.
But I’ve developed proofreading pointers over the years that help me find and correct errors before they are published.
Walk the line
I’ve witnessed two different attitudes when it comes to how people feel about typos.
Some find them unacceptable and a reason to stop reading a publication. Others aren’t bothered by them at all and don’t understand why anyone would make an effort to prevent them.
I’m sure you’re not surprised that my outlook falls in the middle between those two extremes. I walk the line.
It’s a bit excessive to call a website “untrustworthy” if there is a typo in a piece of content or if an author doesn’t strictly follow grammar rules, but publishing your writing with a number of mistakes isn’t wise either.
It can even lead to customer service headaches.
Established publications might be able to “get away with” occasional typos. Their audiences (for the most part) will be forgiving.
But if your website isn’t well-known and trusted yet, you want to demonstrate that you treat your content with the same care as one of the most seasoned content editors. Your aim is to create the best possible experience for your readers.
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3 actions professional writers take when proofreading
Let’s get back to the main action a writer takes when proofreading.
Do you want to learn the techniques I use on every article we publish on Copyblogger, so you can use them when you edit your own writing?
Try one of the three proofreading pointers below when you’re ready to polish your writing before you publish it.
Action #1: Peek-a-boo proofreading
For this first method, you’ll need an opaque object that you don’t mind holding while you proofread.
It could be a note card, your phone, a slab of smoky quartz … whatever is handy and near your desk. Speaking of “handy,” your hand also works as this “object,” if nothing else feels right.
Start at the beginning of your text and cover the second word with the object so that you only concentrate on the first word in the document.
Once you make sure it’s the correct word, surrounded by the correct punctuation if any is needed, shift your focus to the second word and cover the third word with the object.
When you’re satisfied with the second word, cover the fourth word with the object, review the third word, and repeat until you reach the end of your draft.
Blocking out the next word in your text forces you to slow down and examine your writing with a critical eye.
Names of companies, products, and people will stand out so that you can fact-check them. You’ll also be able to quickly see if you’ve accidentally left out a word, repeated a word, or chosen the wrong word.
(Confused about proper punctuation? Check out this article: How to Use a Comma)
Action #2: Deep-tissue “word” massage
The tool I use for this method is a retractable pen with a spongy tip. The spongy part can make contact with my computer screen without scratching it.
You can use an eraser on the end of a pencil, a cotton swab, or another soft, pointed object.
Start at the beginning of your text and physically underline each word with your soft, pointed object as you proofread. My pen actually touches my screen and presses into it as I observe each letter and word.
You don’t need to spend more than a few seconds on each word — just enough time to give it your full attention.
You’ll be able to easily spot “you’re/your/you” and “their/they’re/there” mistakes. Focusing on each letter of a word also helps you notice if you’ve accidentally made a word plural when it is supposed to be singular, or vice versa.
Action #3: My all-time favorite proofreading technique, using one of the tips above
After proofreading and editing an article, the review process still feels a little incomplete — mistakes could be hiding in the content.
So, I consult my go-to list of proofreading pointers to give my content an ultra professional polish.
You’ve (presumably) been reading your writing from the beginning of the text to the end. But it’s time to trick your brain into looking at everything you’ve written in a different way.
So, the technique I use as a final step before publishing is reading from the last sentence to the first sentence.
Here’s how a writer can perform this proofreading action …
You’ll first dedicate a special period of time for proofreading and commit to reading slowly.
Start at the end of your document and read the last sentence … then the second to last sentence … then the third to last sentence … and so on, until you’ve read the entire last paragraph.
Continue moving backwards through your draft this way until you’ve read through your headline.
It’s easier to spot writing mishaps when you view your words in a different order. And even though this session is just for proofreading, you’ll also often make edits that strengthen your writing.
For example, if you’ve overlooked that you’ve used the word “good” multiple times, this method of proofreading helps you spot weaker sections of text. You now have the opportunity to refine your word choice.
Let’s add on.
Stop proofreading at each punctuation mark
As you review each sentence backwards, stop reading any time you encounter a punctuation mark to make sure it is used correctly.
Does each period end a complete sentence? Is each comma, dash, quotation mark, and apostrophe used appropriately?
Punctuation marks help guide the reader through your content, and the reader will take his effortless comprehension of your writing for granted.
With this proofreading activity, the words you read don’t make a casual, light imprint in your mind, and you don’t overlook punctuation marks.
Instead, you tattoo each punctuation mark and word on your brain.
Here are two examples:
Did you write “it’s” instead of “its?”
“It’s” is a contraction of “it is.” “Its” is a possessive form of the pronoun “it.”
Since you’re carefully evaluating your punctuation choices, it will become clear if “it’s” or “its” is correct.
Did you write “you’re” when you intended to write “you’ve?” (I made that mistake in the first draft of this post. Don’t tell anyone.)
The main action for a writer when proofreading: find mistakes, large and small
No matter how many times you’ve already reviewed an article, proofreading with this final technique helps you, at the very least, identify weaknesses you may have overlooked while content editing.
During this stage, I sometimes notice an overused word. Other times, I find that a lot of sentences begin with the same word. Next, I’ll vary the language so the text is more interesting.
You’ll also often find legitimate mistakes, such as:
- The incorrect use of an apostrophe
- The misinterpretation of a phrase, such as “beckon call” rather than “beck and call”
- Subtle typos, such as “top” instead of “stop” or “in” instead of “it”
Read from the end to the beginning with either of the proofreading pointers above to give every detail of your content extra special attention.
Your job is to verify the accuracy of the words and phrases you present to your audience.
The luxury of digital content
When I discovered content marketing, I loved the concept but didn’t think it was something I could do.
Writing regularly seemed like an impossible goal. Since I’m an editor, I thought an accidental writing mistake would tarnish my reputation. I couldn’t risk it.
Do you see what was really going on?
I was lacking confidence at the time. A confident person feels good about the work they’ve carefully produced and realizes mistakes still sometimes happen anyway.
With digital content, it’s especially easy to make corrections and move on.
Present your readers with a distraction-free experience
Proofreading is simple, but it requires a skill that many people lack.
So, what is the main action a writer takes when proofreading?
It’s arguably practicing patience.
If you have the patience to review your writing slowly just once, the time you spend proofreading will be much more effective than if you rush the process but are able to skim through your text multiple times.
Treat proofreading as a specialized activity, and you’ll see the quality of your writing improve — so your readers can focus on your content without distractions.
Reader Comments (23)
Michael LaRocca says
Does sloppy writing imply sloppy work? It might. Why would you want to risk that? Proofread and edit everything. If you can, get someone else to do it, before your reader sees it.
“The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon.”
Stefanie Flaxman says
Nice one, Michael!
Cathy C says
Great suggestions! Thank you.
Imran Khushal says
Reading with a card or something can help but isn’t it difficult when you have to proofread an article on your computer or laptop? I think it is. In fact, for me it is impossible. So, I am using other techniques to make sure that what I write (other the comments) is typo free.
1. I use Google Dictionary, that I have embedded in my browser, to check the accuracy of each and every word by double clicking on it. When you would do so, and if you would, a pop-up window will show the meaning of the word you have written.
2. To check names of individuals, places and companies I use Ctrl+F function. With this, you can actually search and replace all the names in your document, just before hitting publish or submit.
Stefanie Flaxman says
Thanks for sharing your methods, Imran!
Alina Ranee says
Be careful with “replace all” in academic text especially, because you might accidentally replace the name of an author in the citation list.
By the way, those who proofread video transcripts need to be careful. I once saw “Coleen” instead of the correct spelling for the chemical “choline” and for translated text be careful to catch if a writer translated directly when unnecessary. Someone once spotted the Malay language direct translation “tunjuk dia tali-talinya” for “show him the ropes” and “Api!” (fire as in Burn) when the correct translation should have been “Tembak!” (Fire as in Shoot).
Guy Siverson says
Great tips. I found your thoughts about digital marketing to be intriguing. For me it was exactly opposite. I have a degree in Communication and Psychology, purchased courses in writing and even wrote prolifically. But submitting to offline magazine editors just didn’t work for me. Maybe it was a confidence thing like what you experienced, I don’t know. What I do know is that when I went digital everything I wasn’t able to do with paper and pen became instantly doable.
Stefanie Flaxman says
Great to hear digital opened up new opportunities for you, Guy. 🙂
All your methods are really interesting! I hate proofreading because I rarely see any typos and mistakes. Anyway, I will try these methods and see whether proofreading will be easier next time
Tasha B says
When I’m under a tight deadline and I need to check for grammatical errors, I use a TTS reader (text to speech). There are many available for free online. Unlike the human brain, TTS won’t automatically fill in missing words, and it always helps to hear your writing read aloud
Jett Williams says
I would have never thought of this. Such a great idea, Tasha!
Mari Gordon says
I agree – I like the idea of reading your writing out loud. It also helps you to review your style, as anything awkward or overly formal will stand out straight away when it’s spoken.
Nayab Khan says
Some real good tips, looking forward to implement it right from the very next post.
Great article Stephanie, I really enjoyed the read.
Although I now have an editorial team to work with and pass my content to for final proofing, in my previous role I had to do it all myself. I used the first method you have described and as time consuming as it was – it worked. That said, I wish I had known about your technique ten years ago, it would have saved me so much time!
Looking forward to reading your future posts!
Stefanie Flaxman says
I think all the methods I covered are fairly time-consuming, but like you said, they work. When you take shortcuts while proofreading, you typically just miss errors that should be corrected. Great writing, in general, takes time. 🙂
Sandeep Rathore says
Hi Stefanie Flaxman, thanks for providing us with practical tips on proofreading. Reading backward, from the last sentence to the first is really helpful. This slows down our reading, and we are able to catch more typos or missing words. Also, changing the font size helps in proofreading.
Kris Cook says
I always get somebody else to look over my work before posting as I am notorious for zoning out during the writing process. Even though I have a good level of grammar, your head can sometimes race ahead and you are already thinking about writing the next paragraph.
Slowing down might be the next logical step because as you say, when the error leads to the typing of a word, even a wrong one, it is difficult to spot.
Great thoughts shared here Stefanie. When I proofread content, I like to read what i have written slowly and loudly. When you read, you tend not to omit words.
I also generally proofread content only after several hours have gone by since I wrote that piece of content. That way, I can avoid the bias your brain has to correct typos automatically, since it just wrote out what it “believes” is great content, just because it is super-familiar with it.
Jane Rucker says
Thanks for sharing your great post! I edit and proofread a lot of book manuscripts. Going slow is key! I’ve also used the reading backward tactic, especially when working with a particularly stubborn section of writing. Changing your perspective like that helps so very much.
Corey Kerstetter says
Great article! I love the combination of tactile engagement with the content as well as working backward to keep your mind and eyes from glazing over as you look through the piece.
I noticed early on in this piece a sentence that could use a touch-up – especially since this is an article about proofreading – “There’s a common misconception is that proofreading is the same activity as reading.”
I think eyes glazed over the ‘is’ in that sentence when it got reworked. Hopefully that’s helpful!
Thank you again for sharing your thoughts!
Stefanie Flaxman says
Thanks for pointing out that error, Corey! I appreciate you reading/proofreading so closely. 🙂
Gerald Jacobs says
For me, this rings home the most with social media posts and text messages. Too many times I have an oh-no moment because I didn’t proof something as simple as a text message.
Stefanie Flaxman says
Definitely, Gerald! There are so many places where we communicate in writing.
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