Proofreading is a massive skill. You may think you’re good at it — that you can edit and proof at the same time — but let me just say that, from personal experience, this is VERY HARD. Yes, it’s ‘all caps’ hard. That’s because your eye is the ultimate auto corrector. Read fast enough and it will ‘fix’ what’s wrong in your writing before your hands have a chance to. This can lead to frustrating errors, noticed once it’s way too late.
This makes me crazy. Not because I’m a perfectionist. I never assume my writing will be perfect (because it won’t.) It makes me crazy because of what I expect from myself. I expect that my final draft, the one that’s getting published, will be as close to perfect as possible. This means no glaring mistakes just anyone will see, although I also don’t want to read it a week later and catch an error.
I see this problem in books all the time. More so in ebooks rather than print, I’ll be reading along and hit a speed bump in the narrative. Something doesn’t make sense, not because the writing is bad, but because there’s an extra word in the sentence that doesn’t belong, or maybe an errant comma has invaded and damaged the flow. These are the mistakes of an editor (or author) reading so fast their eyes are auto correcting.
IT'S NOT ABOUT PROOFING FOR SPELLING
Just to be clear, when I talk about proofreading, I’m not talking about spelling. Our amazing writing apps have taken care of that problem for us. Some will even mark a word as misspelled when they think you’ve simply used the wrong spelling (I’m talking about those ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ people.)
This is a great service for those of us who have trouble spelling, but it may have also made us a little lazy when it comes to proofing our own work. If the computer is going to catch most of it, how careful do we really need to be?
MISTAKES ARE UNPROFESSIONAL
The answer to the above question is very careful. You still need to be very careful when proofing your work because it’s always a reflection on you as a writer. For me, this is my job. What I write, and how it looks, is a calling card for future clients. It’s how I attract more business.
The last thing I want is an error in my grammar, spelling, punctuation or even word choice. A fine-toothed comb is the only tool that’s going to ensure I catch all the errors in anything I write, and truthfully, some will still get through the cracks. What’s important though is to always take proofreading seriously so you can say you did your very best to create a close-to-perfect piece of content and mean it.
MY ULTIMATE PROOFREADING TIP
So, how do you remedy the autopilot your eyes can turn on when rereading content they’ve already seen 2-3 times? The answer is simple, read your piece backward.
Now, there are two ways to do this:
- Read the entire piece backward, starting with the last word and going all the way to the first. You may have to pause to read a few sentences forward for clarity, but for the most part, your brain won’t autocorrect since you’re reading your content in a completely new way.
- Read the entire piece backward by sentence. Start with the last sentence and end with the first, but read each sentence in the right order. You’ll break up the cadence of the piece, with our sacrificing the flow of each sentence, still forcing yourself to slow down.
Both strategies are insanely helpful, especially after you’ve looked at a piece a million times. Myself, I use strategy one when I’m primarily making edits for punctuation and grammar. If I know my content flows well, and my word choices are good, this option works best for me.
I use option two when I’m not so certain I’ve written everything clearly. If I’m working on a topic that’s totally new to me, or I know I need to keep my writing as succinct as possible, this second method allows me to read for a little more than the basics.
Regardless of which strategy, the key is when to proof. For me, it needs to be the last time I read the piece. It’s my final edit. I need to have the piece as close to done as possible, with this backward read as my final quality control check. It works.
GET AS CLOSE TO PERFECTION AS POSSIBLE
We should all aspire to create content that’s as close to perfect as possible. We don’t want to print retractions or have to pull down a web page to tweak it. We definitely don’t want to get an email or social media comment pointing out our error either. That means taking the time to really edit your content. You want to ensure you’re achieving the goals for the piece while writing in a way that’s understandable and correct.
Proofreading is equally as important as the writing itself, you may just need a way to make it easier on yourself to do it carefully. Now go read something backward and see how it goes.
Note: Reading this piece backward, I caught three errors that I most likely would have missed plowing through from front-to-back.
Photo by Mikhail Nilov.