Get Your Eagle Eye On: 10 Tips for Proofreading Your Own Work

proofreading your own work

The best blog post I read this morning—of many—is good. Very good, actually. It flows. It’s fresh. It has a rhythm that drew me in and made me want to read every word. The ideas are thought-provoking.

But how much more enjoyable would it have been if I didn’t have to reread certain sections to make sure I was getting the gist of things? How much better would the post be if I didn’t hesitate at it’s instead of its and there instead of they’re? How much intended meaning and power was lost over a lack of subject-verb agreement or commas that might have been better placed?

Tripping, stumbling, and hesitating over misspelled words or ill-placed punctuation is like watching a TV show with a shaky cable signal or trying to talk while a cell phone connection is breaking up—the reader is jostled right out of the story the writer is telling.

If the errors are too big or too many, I’m outta there.

This writer intentionally broke a lot of rules in his 1100-word article, and he broke them well. Sentence fragments clustered together as ideas to ponder, a long list of items without commas that symbolizes repetitive drivel, the same word repeated over and over in a few short sentences to pound in a point. Good stuff and well done, for the most part.

Some grammar and punctuation rules can—and should—be broken, when you know what the rules are and how to break them effectively. But the lack of solid proofreading in this piece is like cake without icing, pottery without glaze, or a fine piece of wood in need of a polish. The writer didn’t step back and get his Eagle Eye on.

“Come on,” you chortle. “It’s hard to proofread your own work. And who notices anyway?”

Believe it or not, lots of people notice unless they’re just scanning. And it’s quite possible that many of those scanners might linger on every word you write if typos and bloopers and unintentionally-broken punctuation or grammar rules weren’t making them stumble and wonder and lose their focus.

Typos and errors break up the “voice” that readers are trying to hear as they read your written words.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a freelancer, a blogger, a student, or anyone who writes for any reason. Most of us don’t have proofreaders or a skilled family member or friend to help us out on a regular basis. And if you’re submitting work to an agent or publisher or a big blog for consideration, why let typos and mistakes clutter and cloud the brilliant work you want them to read?

Any time you write something, you want readers to enjoy and appreciate your masterpiece. It’s your baby, an extension of yourself. Take good care of it.

Writing and editing is art. Proofreading is science.

So says Rushang Shah, President of Gramlee.com, an online editing service with editors behind the scenes constantly proofreading and copyediting. Rushang says that “all proofreading and copyediting involves the human element, and that’s why computers cannot replace a proofreader.”

Proofreading your own work can be challenging, it’s true. You already know the story, you already have a picture in your mind of what to expect and, as a result, you tend to skim over words and groups of words. Plus, you know your own voice and, even if there are errors in your writing, you don’t “hear” them or see them because you’re in a hurry, and your mind fills in the blanks as you skim over things. You might be daydreaming—even if you’re reading out loud.

If you have a system, though, proofreading can be like doing a quality check on an assembly line. It’s just busy work, really, and not very creative at all. But it’s so important.

Here are some tips to help you get your Eagle Eye on and proofread your own work like a pro.

1. Don’t proofread until you’re completely finished with the actual writing and editing. If you make major changes while proofreading, even if it’s just within sentences, you’re still in an artistic, creative mode, not a science mode.

2. Make sure you have no distractions or potential interruptions. Shut down email and social media, hide the cell phone, shut off the TV, radio, or music, and close the door. Print your document if you need to get away from the computer altogether.

3. Forget the content or story. Analyze sentence by sentence; don’t read in your usual way. Focus on spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Work backwards, if that helps, or say the words and sentences out loud. Concentrate.

4. Make several passes for different types of errors. Try checking spelling and end punctuation on one pass, grammar and internal punctuation on another, and links or format on yet another pass. Develop a system.

5. Take notes. If you notice a format issue while checking spelling or if you need to look something up, make a quick note and come back to it so you don’t lose your focus.

6. If you do make a last-minute change to a few words, be sure to check the entire sentence or even paragraph over again. Many errors are the result of changes made without adjusting other, related words.

7. Check facts, dates, quotes, tables, references, text boxes, and anything repetitive or outside of the main text separately. Focus on one element or several related aspects of your writing at a time.

8. Monitor yourself. If you find yourself drifting off and thinking about something else, go back over that section again. Try slapping your hand or tapping a foot in a rhythm as you examine each word and sentence out loud.

9. Get familiar with your frequent mistakes. Even the most expreienced writer mixes up their, they’re, and there or too, two, and to. When I’m tried or writing fast, I right what I here in my mind and just get careless. Not a big deal. That’s what proofreading is for. You caught those errors, didn’t you?

10. Check format last. Every document has format, even an email, whether it’s paragraph spacing, text wrap, indentations, spaces above and below a bullet list or between subheadings and text, and so on. Leave this for the end because contents may shift during handling.

You already know better than to rely on spell-check, so I won’t belabor the point except to say that “wear form he untied stats” doesn’t bother spell-check but it might get an American in trouble at a customs checkpoint.

What if you don’t quite know what you’re looking for while proofreading?

Do you know basic comma rules, how to use a semi-colon, or when to use who or whom? You might have an excellent sense of what things should look like or sound like, especially if you’re an avid reader, but if you don’t know basic grammar and punctuation rules, proofreading might be guesswork, at best, with doubtful results, at worst. Why not make your life easier and your writing better? Take some time to learn basic rules from some online resources I consult when I need help:

Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips

Purdue Online Writing Lab: General Writing Resources

Oxford Dictionaries: Better Writing

GrammarBook.com

You can also download a free copy of The Handy-Dandy Everybody’s Guide to Proofreading over at my blog, Peaceful Planet.

Don’t let mistakes tarnish your work of art, whether it’s a research paper, a blog post, a query letter, or business communication. And remember, proofreading is not the same as writing and editing. It’s not about creativity; it’s a science that needs a system. Follow these tips and create your own system, and you’ll have your Eagle Eye on in no time.

Leah McClellan is a freelance writer, copyeditor, proofreader, gardener, vegetarian, and animal lover who dreams of world peace and writes about communication at Peaceful Planet.

About the author

Leah McClellan

Leah McClellan is a freelance writer, copyeditor, proofreader, gardener, vegetarian, and animal lover who dreams of world peace and writes about communication at Peaceful Planet.

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