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, 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

    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.

    • Good one post that provides good guidelines to proofread the work in best way. As I work as academic proofreader so based on my experience, I can easily guess that one, who will follow these guidelines, will be able to proofread his work perfectly by eliminating all mistakes in the work.

    • Wow. It is laughable including better information! For lacks of Eagle Eye, many make mistakes. If do a mistakes they can to better agency.

    • Sujit Das says:

      Dear Sir.

      Please send me a pdf copy of :

      The Handy-Dandy Everybody’s Guide to Proofreading?

      Best regards
      Sujit Das

    • Astreil says:

      Great advice. I’ve bookmarked this one for future use.

    • Jessica M says:

      Another thing I like to do to my manuscript is to change the font, then get to work on it. Subconsciously, I look at it differently and spot things that I never noticed before.

      • Hi Jessica, That’s a great tip! I’ve also heard of printing the document on different-colored paper for the same reason.

        Thanks for sharing that!

    • Hi Melinda, Glad you know what I mean about errors being distracting. That’s interesting that people write to tell you about them! I’ve seen blog comments like that here and there–I’d much rather someone email me if I have an error. I read aloud too sometimes. I think it helps because we have to focus more, and we’re not as likely to be distracted or start daydreaming.

      Have an awesome day!

    • Melinda says:

      Thanks for the post! Errors are really distracting. And I know people notice because every time I miss an error in a post, someone writes to tell me. My favorite strategy for spotting errors is reading aloud. For some reason they’re easier for me to spot that way.


    • Hi everyone – I’m sure you’ve enjoyed this post as much as I have. Make sure you get Leah’s free Ebook about proofreading. It’s awesome!
      Here’s the link:
      Everybody’s Guide to Proofreading

    • Ajeva says:

      Hi Leah,

      I wonder if there’s a software that can help you proofread so you can save time. I love these tips you wrote here, especially on reading those sentences out loud. I do this all the time. If the sentence doesn’t sound or feel right, there’s something wrong with it. The challenge now is how to proofread without diminishing the original creative work of another writer. Tough. Thanks for the awesome post anyway.

      • Hi Ajeva, There’s probably software for this, though I don’t know how accurate it might be. There are so many small things to keep in mind, nuances, special situations, and so on. Good point about proofreading without changing the writer’s voice. With proofreading, though, we’re just checking for the small things: punctuation, spelling, verb agreement, and so on. Fixing those errors shouldn’t change the voice. Copyediting, on the other hand, might. I do it every day and switch between many different styles, and I usually have to read through a little first, but then I just stick with that style or keep the purpose and audience in mind if drastic changes are required.

        Thanks 🙂

    • judy says:

      Another great blog for proofing, which is what I’m doing now and I appreciate your help

    • Leah and Stefanie,
      I have several work-arounds to avoid repeating “he or she” so much. One is to use “he” sometimes and “she” sometimes when it could be either. For example, if I’m writing about a generic doctor, sometimes I use “he” and sometimes “she”–but not when I’m referring to the very same person.

      Another is to use “he” and then give him a name by saying “Let’s call him [insert man’s name].” That way I can either the pronoun or the proper name. That makes the writing smoother and less abstract.

      I also use the pronoun “one” fairly often, but I agree that it seems a bit quaint.

      I’d love to have more suggestions.

      • I agree with Leah. You can often change the antecedent to a plural, so that you can use a plural pronoun also. “They” or “them” often flows more smoothly than the repetitive use of “he/she.”

        When I edit text with this issue, I often look for ways to make the point without referring to any individual(s) (and therefore you don’t need to use a pronoun). It depends on the context, but if you examine the message that you wish to communicate, there are often more succinct ways to convey an idea.

      • Hi Madeleine, Stefanie added a good tip; I’ve done that too. Just today I edited something that had many instances of this issue, and I mostly changed the antecedent to plural or just reworded it as Stefanie suggested. This might be a topic for another guest post! Along with a few other things like this, maybe. At the moment I can’t think of any others, but if I do, I’ll email you 🙂

    • Your e-book, The Handy-Dandy Everybody’s Guide to Proofreading, is an excellent resource. For one thing, as you’ve suggested in this post, errors in grammar, spelling, or usage affect one’s credibility as a writer.

      Here’s a question for you: I constantly see the pronoun “them” used to refer back to one person, e.g., “When you’re shopping for a present for your husband, consider getting them a pedometer.” Huh? Do women often have more than one husband?

      It’s clear that saying “them” came about as a way to avoid saying “him or her” all the time, but that still doesn’t make it right. I see people using “them” even when it’s clear that the antecedent is one person who is a man. Is this a lost battle, Leah? Should I just get over it? What do you think?

      • Hi Madeleine,

        I understand your frustration.

        Next time you’re on Twitter, check out a “locked” profile. The text says, “This person has protected their tweets.” I’d love for Twitter to change “their” to “his/her” (and, yes, I’ve tweeted about this in attempt to get Twitter to correct the error). 😉

        If you refer to one person, use a singular pronoun. I wouldn’t use a plural pronoun to refer to one person just because you see other writers do it. Hold your ground! 🙂

      • Thanks Madeleine!

        Great question. I see that a lot too, and sometimes when I’m writing I have to play around a bit because “he or she” and “him or her” gets redundant after awhile. If possible, I’ll change the antecedent to a plural so the pronoun that follows can be plural.

        I’d have to take some time to think all this out (it’s been awhile since I thought about it), but basically the problem comes down to not having a gender-neutral third person pronoun in English (we have “one” but that’s it, no plural, and we rarely use that anyway). We used to have a gender-neutral 3rd, ages ago, and some other languages do, but we’re kind of stuck now if we don’t want to make a gender reference.

        I might be wrong, but I think using “their” and “them” to refer back to a singular has been going on for a long time, at least with casual or other-than-educated usage. But the reason you cite is one of them.

        As for getting over it, well, language evolves. As writers, we go with the standards set by authorities and style guides and whatever. If the bulk of the English-speaking population keeps up with certain things, eventually it becomes the correct way.

        Double negatives are what grates on my ears but what can you do? I can only imagine how I sound when speaking French or Spanish lol But I get the message across 🙂

    • Koby Ackie says:

      I’m embarrassed to admit that I recently found very simple mistakes in my own work recently. As I have rediscovered and reengaged with my love of writing, it’s good to be reminded of the simple basics involved in proofreading your work. Just reading it over once or twice through doesn’t catch everything.

      I will certainly download your guide. Thank you for the post.

      • Hi Koby,

        Don’t feel too bad–we all make errors, and I’ve found some in my own blog posts (or other work) a day or two after posting. It happens to the best writers. The key thing is that we can get most of them, most of the time–at least as far as I’m concerned. Seems to me it’s a different story, though, with a book or magazine published by a big publishing house with a team of editors and proofreaders doing the work. Then there’s not much excuse.

        Hope the guide helps!

    • Thanks for the useful tips and resources links. I agree with Katie, sometimes we just can’t find our own mistakes – we’re just too close to it and know what is intended even if it’s not actually conveyed. It’s so easy to miss errors while editing and proofing our own work.

      Although, your tips will help catch most of them.

      Oh, what’s the Handy-Dandy Proofreading Guide?


      • Hi Karen,

        So glad the tips are useful for you. And I agree: what makes proofreading our own work so challenging is that we’re too close to it and know what it’s supposed to say so we skim over stuff without even realizing it. It’s like playing a piece on a piano that you’ve mostly memorized. You might have the sheet music up–just in case–but you’re not really using it; you’re just skimming over it as you play and not really looking at the notes anymore.

        The “Handy-Dandy Everybody’s Guide to Proofreading” is a little ebook I put together with lots of proofreading tips and basic rules of grammar and sentence structure/punctuation laid out in a visual way that’s really helpful. It evolved from a class handout a few years back (I teach writing classes once in awhile), but the original inspiration was a professor in college who really made a difference for me and my ability to proof my own papers. It’s free, and you can get it over on my blog, Peaceful Planet (clicking on my name should bring it up).

        Have a great day!

    • I think proofreading gets overlooked by a lot of people, even some print publishers. I’ve become so used to reading bad grammar on the web that I didn’t even notice the errors in 9 until after you asked if I caught them. Those are the type of mistakes I make most often in my own writing. I proofread every revision and then wait at least a day before a final proofread. Proofreading multiple times for different types of errors is a great idea.

      • Hi David,

        I think you’re right. Yep, there are plenty of typos in printed books–even novels, biographies etc. I often see them but that’s because I’ve been proofreading for so long; they just pop out at me. But I miss things too sometimes, especially in my own work. It’s not easy. But making it a system is what works for many people.

        That’s funny that you didn’t notice the errors in #9 at first. I have a lot of “bugger” words and “expreience” is one of them lol (I can never spell rhythmy either…rhythym pffftttt rhythm (strange word 🙂

    • Lisa H. says:

      Hi Leah,
      Great work as usual. Your Handy-Dandy Proofreading guide was exactly the kind of proofreading guide I was looking for. Your examples are fantastic and make it easy for me to apply what I have learned to my writing. For me, reading words that weren’t there was a big one. I use your guide at work and for blogging. In fact, I am about to write another article that links to it. Thanks for this great resource.

      • Hi Lisa,

        Thanks, and I’m so glad the guide is helpful. I should send a copy to the professor who inspired parts of it and made such a difference for me so many years ago. It’s kind of like a “pay it forward” or sharing the love sort of thing. After two writing classes with her (drill sergeant that she was, sort of!) my proofreading system was born and my papers were usually error free. Just a matter of time and practice to really get good.

        Thanks so much (for the link too!)!

    • Hi Leah,
      Great article! I love your Handy-Dandy Proofreading guide. I’ve referred to it often.
      I do walk away from my articles and re-read them with a fresh set of eyes, and try to catch all the mistakes I can at that time.
      I actually moved in the second grade from an inner city school to the suburbs where the course-work was much more advanced. They’d already learned grammar before I got there, so I was never formally taught grammar. I go by sound and feel. I’ve also read a lot on my own. Knowing there’s an expert around like you makes me feel better though!

      • Thanks Angela,

        You mean to say you got through jr. high and high school without underlining subjects and verbs? I’m jealous lol It seemed like we did the same thing, over and over, and never got beyond “one line for subject, two lines for predicate/verb” etc etc. Maybe we circled prepositional phrases; I forget.

        Well, however we do it the end result is what’s important, and you clearly learned something somewhere! Glad you like the Handy Dandy and you’re using it 🙂

        Have an awesome day!

    • katie says:

      Awesome article, Leah. I love how you dive right in and let us know why this is so important and for whom (or is it who?) it is important. These tips are invaluable and I love the resources. I do my best with proofreading my own material, but my eyes and ears often fill in things that just aren’t there. I find I need distance from the writing to truly see and hear the mistakes. I say “hear” because for me, reading out loud (or is it outloud) is the only way to proofread. I’m also always looking up stuff that just doesn’t seem to stick in my head. Thanks for this Leah.

      • Thanks Katie,

        Definitely jumped right to the point in this one! Who/whom–I try to avoid it. We don’t often see “whom” these days, and that’s why many of us don’t know how to use it (or when we see the word it’s often used incorrectly). I have to be careful with it too whenever I use it, which is rare. But knowing the rule helps.

        This is exactly why it’s hard to proofread our own work: “my eyes and ears often fill in things that just aren’t there.” Yep.

        I have to look up stuff too–I have a stack of reference books right at my desk plus online resources. Reading out loud (good one to look up! I often do a quick google or check stuff like that with online dictionaries) is a great technique–I often do that when I’m getting tired. It helps!

        Glad this is useful for you.

        • Kerryn says:

          At last! Someone who unerdsatnds! Thanks for posting!

    • Proofreading my own work is what I struggle with the most as a freelancer, must to the annoyance of my copy editors. Every client has their own set of guidelines that must be followed. I do think my inability to proofread my work comes from trying to write as many articles as I can in a short amount of time.

      This article had many great tips that I’ll be sure to follow this week and from now on. I’m bookmarking it! Hopefully my copy editors will be pleased.

      • Hi Ashley,

        I know what you mean. I can’t put out a lot of articles in a short period of time because I often spend a lot of time editing and proofreading–it depends on the subject, though. Sometimes I can whip stuff out, especially for my blog, really fast because I’m proofing as I go along though I always do a final check. Depends. But for me, submitting error-free work is important, and it’s what I’ve been building my business on.

        The more you proofread with a system, the better you’ll get. Do get a copy of my little ebook (it’s free). There are some tips in there I got from a professor years ago that helps to see our writing differently, and it really made a difference for me.

        Good luck.

    • Kathleen says:

      Wonderful tips and information. Enjoyed reading! blessings,Kathleen

    • I love proof reading because I know I’m making it better. The only time I have trouble is when I know something isn’t working and don’t know how to fix it – sigh, it happens. A break from the ms usually works.

      Doing reads looking at different things really works for me, I haven’t tried going backwards yet – maybe next read.

      • Hi Tahlia,

        I love proofreading too, most of the time. For me, it’s the easy part, and it feels like I’m putting the final touches on my work. Buff here, polish there, chip away at the marble over there….

        When something isn’t working for me, I think of a saying you might know: “if in doubt, throw it out!” If I’m wrestling too long with something, it usually means pulling that sentence (or whatever) out and just reworking it.

        Backwards–whatever works to help us look more objectively at our writing is the goal 🙂

    • I try to proof read all of my blog posts before I publish them, but I always seem to get distracted and never finish going through the full post. I always have someone read over my post before they go live to check over any grammar mistakes that I might have made.

      • Hi Donny,

        I’m kind of the opposite: I proof in preview mode before I hit publish, and then I go over it again once or twice depending on how careful I was in the first place. I almost always find something (and you can believe I went over this guest post MANY times! I went over it again today to be double-sure, and if anyone finds a typo, I’ll send him or her the BIG Eagle Eye prize. Most of my freelance work is editing and proofreading, so that’s a big motivator–can’t have a client find work with bloopers in it. Or maybe I’m just a perfectionist 🙂

        Having other people go over our work is ideal, as long as we’re certain they know what they’re doing. 🙂

    • Jim Bessey says:

      Great post, Leah, with lots of helpful pointers to improve my own proofreading. Got the best laugh out of your two spell-check examples!

      I have downloaded your Ebook and will cherish it for all time!

      Thanks, ~Jim

      • Hi Jim!

        Glad you enjoyed it. I actually had a student awhile back who had “Untied Stats” in a final paper. I wish I could remember the context because it was really funny. I’ve had plenty of bloopers myself!

        I truly hope the ebook helps people–thanks.

    • “Don’t proofread until you’re completely finished with the actual writing and editing.”

      This is one of the best tips. Great work Leah. Never knew you where so knowledgeable in the area of Writing. Love it.

      • Hi Jonathan!

        Glad you like that one. That’s definitely important because there are two different processes going on: the fun, creative part and the sometimes boring, more factual side of things like proofreading and fact-checking.

        Yeah, sometimes I’m called Professor McClellan or Ms. M though lots of people don’t know that since I’m generally a wild child lol

    • As a painter and entrepreneur, the art and business of blogging seems to have come easy for me.

      Sharing my experience with a certain degree of artistry seems natural, however the “science” of writing with all it’s rules is more difficult, perhaps because I’ve long espoused the virtues of “rule breaking” and “marching to the beat of your own drum”, but of course I failed high school English (and everything else in school) for this very same reason.

      Well, back to school for me … and your ten tips for proofreading is very good place for me to start. Perhaps this time around, I’ll get an “A”?

      • Hi there Mr. Contrary,

        It’s really common for creative types to not want to focus much on the science side of things–grammar and spelling and proofreading and all that. And high school English doesn’t usually do a very good job of getting us interested. But here’s a thought: aren’t there some rules for painting? Mixing colors, depth perception, stretching/preparing a canvas…What about blogging? If you want to be good on the design side, it’s good to know some code. Of course some say that “code is poetry” and I get that, but it’s pretty dry with lots of rules. Same with music: we have to know scales and chords and notes and plenty of rules….but once we know them we can go crazy with the rule breaking 🙂

        I’m sure you’ll get an “A” (I checked out your blog btw–cool 🙂

        • Leah – yes, you are absolutely correct … painting most definitely has rules, so that is an excellent point you make, however in the world of art today (especially in painting), following the rules (depth, craftsmanship, color) as paradoxical as it may sound, IS an act of contrarianism!

          The short history of modern art and contemporary aesthetics is the sad story of originality over craftsmanship, skill, and technique.

          It seems rule breaking has become a substitute for art making. The vast majority seek innovation as a substitute for the hard-earned skill required to make truly exceptional art. So in this regard, the contrarian’s in the field of art today are those who strive to excel in traditional ways of historypainting.

          Thank you for the thoughtful response, and appreciate the kind words about the Contrarianism blog.

          • I can picture that–thanks for explaining. I can imagine people splashing some paint on a wall and calling it art. And maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but my guess is that anyone who is any good has at least some sense of the technical aspects underlying those splashes, even if self-taught. And if knowing the rules is being contrary, well, let’s be contrary! Can’t hurt to know that the splashes of color that look really good look that way for a reason 🙂

    • I have always hated to proofread my own work, and I am pretty sure that I am not the only one of my kind.

      When, however, I do have to check my own work, the one thing I find useful is taking a break between writing and checking. If I am proofreading my work right after I have finished writing, the chances that I might miss a mistake are much greater than when some amount of time has passed since the writing of the piece.

      • Hi there,

        You’re definitely not alone! Lots of people don’t like proofreading their own work. I agree, taking a break between the actual writing/editing and proofreading is a great way to look at your work with fresh eyes. Even if it’s only an hour or two, it gives us some distance so we can look at our own work more objectively. A few days is even better, though many of us don’t often have that kind of time.

    • James M says:

      I find reading from the bottom to the top helps me catch a lot of my errors, and also taking a good break before tackling the proofreading portion of writing. Having a fresh mind will help you catch a lot more of the mistakes than a tired mind will.

      Love #9, by the way. I had to re-read the sentence a few times before I realized the mistakes were on purpose.

      • Hi James,

        Good tips! Reading bottom to top or backwards or checking paragraphs out of order–whatever helps us to look at our writing more objectively is great. And I agree: if we’re tired we’re more likely to miss things.

        Glad you caught the errors in #9! I think knowing what our common erros are is really helpful (not hitting keys hard enough is one of mine, as you can see in this sentence :).

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