8 Helpful Tips for Proofreading

September 20, 2016


You’ve probably seen one of the many pictures of church signs or bulletins with unintentionally hilarious  mistakes. If you are the one preparing your church or school's bulletins and signs, you might have been the one who accidentally wished visitors a “worm welcome” or prayed for the people who “are sick of our church and community.”

Despite our best efforts, it can be extremely difficult to catch our own mistakes. Some mistakes are insignificant and won’t cause much actual confusion, but some have the potential to become distracting or problematic. You can read about the seventh commandment as listed in a Bible printed in 1631 which instructed, “thou shalt commit adultery.” History remembers that as The Sinner’s Bible and that one small, but very important, omitted word resulted in its printers being fined and eventually going bankrupt.

Fortunately, there are a few steps you can add to your writing routine to reduce the amount of errors in your work and make it less likely that you’ll end up with wildly inappropriate commandments or accidentally funny bulletins.

Write, rest, check

Wait until your whole project is complete and then walk away from it for a few hours. Once you’ve had some time to do something else, you can return to your project with fresh eyes and be better able to see where it needs improvement or where you’ve made errors.

Print it out

Many professional editors will agree that it’s much easier to notice mistakes when you’re hunting for them on paper than it is on a screen. Your computer's spell and grammar checking tools can be helpful, but more and more research seems to indicate that your comprehension and attention is stronger when you are reading text on paper than text on a screen. If it's not practical to print your work to edit it, or you prefer to work paperless, be sure to track the changes you make while editing, especially if you are cutting and rearranging large amounts of text.

Use spell check, but don’t rely on it

Spelling and grammar check functions can be very helpful. Keep in mind, though, that their abilities are limited. For example, spell check won’t tell you that you’ve put your fingers in the wrong place and told someone you are “defiantly attending" the potluck, rather than “definitely attending" it. The more garbled your typing is, the more likely it is that spell check will recommend the wrong correction for you. (For example, if I type definantly, when I mean to type definitely, my spell check suggests defiantly, but not definitely.)  Also, spell check will not help you with words that sound the same, but are very different, which is probably what occurred when a Baltimore TV station identified Prince Harry as the Prince of Whales, rather than of Wales.

Some people like the assistance a grammar check function provides. It can be helpful, especially in pointing out when you’ve mistakenly doubled your words or when you have switched verb tenses mid-sentence. But there are other options that can be more helpful. I like Grammarly, which is a free browser extension and MS Word add-on that also helps point out when words are used in the wrong context, when you are overusing a word, or when you might have misused commonly confused words and phrases. It is significantly more accurate than the native grammar check function in most programs.

Know your personal weaknesses

Of course, if you don’t know which potentially confusing homophone (Whales or Wales) is the correct one, or when to use lay or lie, you won’t be able to spot those errors yourself. The best way to get around that is to be aware of what you know and don’t know, and find someone who can help you. If you’ve had people point out that you often use the wrong choice for its/it’s or your/you’re, it can be helpful to use the “find all” function with that word to sort through your work and be sure you’ve used it correctly. Make or download a grammar or word usage cheat sheet to help you remember which one to use.

Even if you're a grammar ace, a second set of eyes on everything is invaluable. Try to build time into your deadlines for a second or third person to read your work. There isn’t always time for that, but it is a best practice that you should strive for.

Check one, two, three

Don’t try to do all of your editing at once. Read through once for content, making sure you’ve said exactly what you wanted to say and haven’t forgotten any important information. Then read through a second time to look for mistakes in grammar and word usage, or awkward sentences. Finally, go back at least one more time to look for details like missing periods or incorrect dates.

Read out loud, then backward

Checking your work is one time it’s completely acceptable to talk to yourself. Reading out loud forces you to slow down and take extra notice of what you’ve actually typed instead of what you think you've typed. You’re more likely to pick up on awkward sentences and phrasing when you hear yourself speaking than you are when you just read it over in your head. Reading out loud and slowly helps you make sure that you haven't written sentences that are crammed full of details, but make little sense. (A good example is from my own editing of this article: I read that last sentence through three times in my head before I realized that I'd actually written "out loudly slowly" when I read it out loud.)

It’s not easy to do, but reading a paragraph or page backward can help you spot missed punctuation, repeated words, or mistakes in dates and numbers. This is especially helpful when you have a project that is largely made up of lists.

Make a find/replace list

One of my favorite resources is a book and website by Paul Brians called Common Errors in English Usage. This site uses comparative examples to walk you through the differences between easily confused words such as effect/affect and lay/lie, along with commonly mistaken words and phrases like “deep seeded,” which people often use instead of the correct “deep seated.”

If you really want to build your editing skills, you can browse the Q&A section of The Chicago Manual of Style or the Ask the Editor section of the Associated Press Stylebook and get answers to questions you might not have ever known needed to be answered. Keep in mind, though, that not all websites and books are equal, and this is very much true about grammar and usage. There are many discussions about what is and isn't proper English, and a number of the "mistakes" people like to point out are actually standard English.

Forgive yourself

Everyone makes mistakes. The more writing you have to do, the more mistakes you will make. Unfortunately, some people take inordinate pleasure in pointing out your mistakes and making you feel incompetent, especially on social media. Once you’ve recovered from the embarrassment of seeing your mistakes, go back and edit those PowerPoint slides with the mistaken lyrics, or make yourself a note that you have been consistently typing about “angles” instead of “angels” in your Christmas programs.

Strive to do the best you can, but be sure to give yourself grace. Remember, even people tasked with the solemn work of printing Bibles have made mistakes and encouraged wives to submit to their “owl husbands” or believers to “sin on more.”

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