Five tips on proofreading your own work

I and others have addressed this before, but I thought I would address it again as spring is coming, students are writing papers or theses or dissertations and writers are trying once again to pull out their manuscripts and do some writing whilst sitting incognito at the park or at least outside at their favorite cafe. So, below are five tips on how to proofread your own work.

1) Find someone else to read your work. I know, I said proofreading your own work, but having a fresh set of eyes to look over your work is truly the best thing you can do. It doesn’t have to be a paid proofreader. It can be a fellow writer or classmate. Trade papers or manuscripts with them. Determine what you want them to look for (just typos? awkward sentences? Inconsistencies?) and what you will be looking for in their writing. Stick to those objectives. It’s much easier to see something in someone else’s work than to see it in your own. Once you get your work back from your friend or classmate, thank them and go to your safe place and be prepared to see what you missed. (If your friend wandered off the instructions and wrote in editorial remarks then feel free to ignore those, or take them into consideration. This exercise is all about the proofreading.)

2) Put your work away for an extended period of time. This is called letting your manuscript “bake”. Students don’t always have this option as they have due dates and times – unless of course they’ve actually written their paper in a timely enough manner that this is possible. If you don’t have a due date, let the manuscript “bake” for a good month or so. If you are a student and the paper is due soon, then put the paper away and don’t look at it until after you’ve had a good night’s sleep, a good meal and have had time for your brain to hit “reset” – a good solid 12 hours if possible. Your brain is a very efficient machine and fills in where things may be missing or wrong in your copy. What you’re trying to do is give your brain a chance to “forget” the copy you’ve been working on and see it fresh. This way you have a better possibility of seeing clearly missed or misspelled words or rewritten sentences that haven’t quite been cleaned up, yet.

3) Go Old School and proofread the hard copy. Yes, you love your laptop. You curl up with it at night to watch movies and use it during the day to do homework or write your Greatest American Novel in between side trips to Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. And yes, you’d rather save money and the environment by not using paper and ink on printing out what will be just another marked up copy. But your eyes see a computer screen differently than they do an actual piece of paper. The type on your computer screen is constantly moving, where the type on a piece of paper is still on the page. You may actually catch more mistakes on the hard copy because of this. So, print out your work, grab a favorite pencil or red pen (whatever you like working with best that you will see clearly), curl up in your safe place and read your piece, line by line.

4) Read it out of order. There’s an old adage that proofreaders read copy backwards to catch all the mistakes. That is only true some of the time, but it does help if you’re reading lists, figures or haven’t been able to get enough distance between you and your manuscript or paper. Grab a ruler, that usually helps. What you’re going to try to do is look at the copy as you would a math problem. You aren’t “reading” the copy – you are just looking at the copy as discrete symbols strung together in coherent single words and then sentences. This is a trick that’s only good for catching typos, though you might find the occasional awkward sentence (especially if your brain still remembers diagramming sentences from junior high).

5) Read it through one more time. You will never get all the mistakes. I work for a newspaper where writers, three editors, a proofreader and graphic designer all read through most of the monthly paper before it goes out, and we don’t always catch all the mistakes. But read it through one last time before hitting send. If there are important names or terms that you are using in your paper or manuscript, then make sure you have a list of them next to you and make sure all those are spelled correctly, if nothing else. Spot check for periods, especially at the end of paragraphs. If there are mistakes you make all the time (then vs. than vs. that, your vs. you’re, its vs. it’s, their, they’re and there, etc.) then use the Control F (Find) function to go through and look for those places where you may have used one or the other.

In the end, you may just end up finding that one glaring mistake AFTER you hit send, but at least you know went through and found all the others. Or, at least MOST of all the others. Well, at least you gave it the old college try. But hopefully these tips will help you produce a cleaner and more professional document than you would have otherwise produced on your own.

But if you’d like help proofreading and copyediting your dissertation, thesis, paper or book, please make sure to keep Putt Putt Productions in mind.