So you've worked really hard and finally finished writing your essay, article, presentation, report or marketing copy. You've run a spell and a grammar check in the 'right kind' of English, eg. American, Australian or British. Now you want to make sure there aren't any errors hanging around that might undermine your credibility or distract a reader from the message you want to convey.
First, a disclaimer. I don't proofread my own articles, only other people's writing. I don't recommend proofreading your own work. Everybody makes errors in copy, and it is very hard to see all of your own mistakes. At least one other person goes over any article I write with a fine-toothed comb, sometimes two or three people, before they are published.
Sometimes however, especially if time is limited, you need to do it yourself.
These are my top ten tips for proofreading your own or someone else's documents. Technically they encompass copy editing as well, as in practice the difference between them is often blurred.
I have left two mistakes in these tips. See if you can find them. And I definitely want to know if you find more than two!
1. If you are going to proofread your own work, print it out and stick it in a drawer.
Don't look at it until you've at least gone away to have lunch or work on something else for a while. Preferably leave it for a day or more.
2. Activate the cone of silence.
You will be wasting your time if you don't allow yourself to have the kind of concentration that surgeons require when they make that first cut. So choose a time when you're not likely to be interrupted. Just like in an operating theatre background music is ok but turn off the TV or radio. And save your cup of tea or coffee for later.
3. Tool up.
It's useful to have a pencil, notepad, opaque ruler, dictionary and a style guide. Use the ruler so you can only see one line at a time. Or use your finger or your pencil to touch each word as you go. It forces you to slow down and really look at each mark on the page.
4. Do a number of passes.
Read it once to look just at the headings, once to look at the body of the text, once to look at tables or graphs, once to look at footnotes, and so on.
5. Read it backwards.
This is a tip I learned from a seasoned major newspaper sub editor. He read every word in reverse order, from the bottom of the page to the top. It makes you slow down and concentrate, and stops your brain from predicting what's ahead and not 'seeing' errors.
6. Read it out loud.
It's great if you can team up with someone. One of you reads it aloud from the screen or the original copy or another copy, while the other follows along on their copy. This really helps a lot with getting the grammar right so that sentences flow properly, and also when there are lots of numbers to check.
7. Don't forget to notice the page numbers, the masthead or letterhead, and headings.
8. Look out for homophones.
These are words that sound the same but are spelt differently and have different meanings, such as bear and bare, hare and hair, stationery and stationary, practice and practise. Also handy is a sixth sense for words that commonly get subsituted for each other - such as affect and effect.
9. Strive for consistency in content and formatting.
This is making sure, for example, that if titles are in bold font, they are always in bold font, or that dates are in the same format throughout the document. It also applies to the spaces between paragraphs, or between text and figures, the size of margins etc.
10. Always try to have someone else check it for errors.There will often be something you missed.
I could go on, but these are the main things I do when I am proofreading and editing copy. Please leave a comment if you have any great tips to add.
Finally, did you spot the errors I left in on purpose? In point number 8 there's a 't' missing in 'substituted', and there's less space between points 9 and 10 just after the relevant point about consistency.