Writing is one thing and it’s one thing we love doing here at CubeSquared, but the actual writing the words is only part of the overall process. Once you’ve created your blog, short story, novel, news or magazine article or curt letter to your nemesis, whatever it might be, you’ve got to make sure it’s good to go before you send it off and that always should involve proofreading.
That’s the same for us when creating work for our clients, or for you when you’re doing it yourself.
There is so much more to proofreading than just re-reading what you’ve written or run a spell-check over it. They help obviously but are only a small part of the process. With that in mind, we’ve created 10 top tips that we use when crafting a client’s message and our own work to make sure it’s as good as it possibly can be.
1. USE A SPELLCHECKER, BUT…
One of the most obvious errors that people make that instantly detract from their writing is spelling mistakes. Spelling words incorrectly is a part of the writing process; we all do it at times as we try to get the words on the page. Most of them get corrected, but they can also be red flags to the quality of the piece if not comprehensively addressed.
Almost all modern word processing software will have automatic spell-checking functionality built-in to them, which is great, but it’s not the answer to everything. Yes it will (hopefully) find all the spelling mistakes in your writing, which is a good thing, but it’s not the whole story.
By all means, utilise them for the obvious errors, but don’t think for one minute that they are the panacea your proofreading is looking for. The main reason for this scepticism is that they don’t usually find grammatical errors. Using the wrong word won’t help you, even if its spelt correctly.
If, for example, “we were to rite something like this” you might immediately spot the mistake, but the spellchecker won’t. Obviously, we meant to write ‘write’ instead of ‘rite’, but ‘rite’ is a word and it is spelt correctly, so the software won’t highlight it. That might also mean it gets missed without further checking. This is just one example, but it’s not the ONLY example.
If, when you’re finished writing, don’t just look for those words with a red underline and skim over the rest. By all means use a spellchecker, but don’t rely on it to do everything for you. Also, whilst you might not think spelling mistakes are that important, Google does. This excerpt is taken from Google’s own guidelines and shows that misspelling words or poor grammar can have a detrimental affect on your search rankings. Another good tip when proofreading that doesn’t rely on a spellchecker is especially important when it comes to grammar. Go through your page and circle (with a red pen ideally - or at least one that stands out) every instance of a punctuation mark. Don’t worry whether its correctly placed or not, just mark every comma, full stop, exclamation point, question mark, colon, semi-colon, etc. you have written. Whilst they may be in the right place, marking every one forces you to look at each of them individually and ask yourself if it is correctly placed and whether you’ve used the right one (commas where full-stops should be, etc).
2. PROOFREAD WHEN YOU’RE ALERT
With the weight of your words carrying a literary heavy load, it’s important that when you do come and proofread your work that you are at your best; mentally sharp and focused on the task at hand.
Don’t proofread late at night after a hard day in front of the keyboard or when you’ve spent all day chasing after the kids. Set some time aside when you’re wide awake, not going to be disturbed and ready to concentrate.
You may not have a mountain of time available (which is when Step 4 might come in handy) but always make sure you’re at your best and most alert. This is going to be different for different people; some might be at their best first thing in the morning, others…. not so much. Whatever time is best for you, use that time effectively. Even a good night's sleep might be the difference between spotting an error and not.
3. CLARITY OF MESSAGE
As we just touched on, spelling mistakes are generally an easy spot, but proofreading goes beyond that. People will often forgive the odd spelling mistake, providing the rest of the piece is engaging, clear and simple to understand.
Articulating the message of your writing is another key aspect of creating something special. When you’re writing and you’re in the ‘zone’ the words seem to flow onto the page easily. When you’re in that place and wanting to get everything on the page as quickly as you can, it can be easy to go off on tangents or lose track of what you’re trying to say. You get side-tracked by new ideas and waylaid by persuasive arguments. Your page ends up looking like a word salad.
When you’re finished, the next key step is to think about the clarity of your work.
The question to ask yourself is will your target audience understand what you’re trying to say? Have you used appropriate language in setting the tone of the piece and have you eliminated ‘jargon’ that most people won’t understand to keep it simple?
If you can objectively answer ‘yes’ to each of those questions, then you’re on to a winner. Remember, when you’re going over your work, it might sound good to you, but for the most part, you won’t be the one reading it!
4. TACKLE IT IN STAGES
Regardless of how long (or short) your piece of work is, one thing you can do, rather than try and tackle the proofreading in one go, is to break it down and do the proofreading in stages.
Most people will attempt to proofread their text by trying to resolve all the errors in one go. That’s not the best way to do it because you get side-tracked by spelling mistakes and forget about grammar, the narrative your creating or the context. Instead, tackle one aspect of proofreading at a time.
Think of each read-through as an opportunity to focus on one particular aspect. These can include one pass that just looks for spelling mistakes, one purely on grammar and punctuation marks, one can look at the headings and their relevance and another can look at its narrative structure (in other words, does the article make sense).
Breaking your work down into these sections, it can make each ‘pass’ much more manageable to tackle and easier it will be to read as you won’t be getting side-tracked by other issues.
We wouldn't recommend doing one straight after the other. Take a little time between each pass as you can become ‘blind’ to the words if you’re constantly re-reading them.
5. CHANGE HOW IT LOOKS
If you’re one of those people who is constantly reading and re-reading your work on your screen hoping to spot all those errors, this tip is definitely for you.
When you’re looking at the same screen, the same words and the same layout, you can become oblivious to what you see, thus making those errors harder to spot.
One simple way to counteract this is to alter how the words look by changing the format. This freshens up the article you’re writing for the eyes and helps you to spot errors more easily. You can do this by either:
Printing it out (if you have a printer obvs.) and checking it that way; marking any errors in a different colour.
Changing the colours of the page / text on the screen. e.g. white text on blue background works well.
Altering the size of the text.
Changing the font you used (ensuring the new font is easy on the eye)
Adjusting the spacing between the lines.
All of these small changes can make a massive difference to your proofreading and help you spot those niggling little errors.
6. READ IT OUT LOUD
Most people, when proofreading, read the text silently in their head, which is fine, but there’s something to be said for reading your words out loud.
Hearing the words spoken can make a world of difference to how it reads. Not only will it help you spot errors that you can now hear, but it will also go a long way to helping readers to understand your message.
If sentences cause confusion when YOU are reading them, they will probably cause even more difficulties for other people less familiar with the text.
If the sentences don’t flow smoothly or sound clumsy when they’re read out loud, it’s probably time to reword them.
One thing to bear in mind is that if you don’t feel comfortable reading your text yourself or reading isn’t your strong point, you can get your computer to do it for you. Whilst it won’t be as natural as a human being doing it, most computers will have a ‘text-to-speech’ function as part of their Accessibility settings. You might want to incorporate this process as well as rather than instead of silent proofreading.
7. ASK SOMEONE ELSE TO REVIEW IT
If proofreading isn’t your thing or you’ve become a bit ‘word blind’ to it, one option might be to get a friend, family member or colleague to look it over for you. This might sound simple, but it’s not without its own pitfalls.
When finding the right person to ask, it’s important that you can trust them and that you value their opinion. Asking your mum or partner might mean they tell you what they think you want to hear, rather than the critique you actually need to improve your writing. Whilst that might be ‘nice’ for you, it’s not going to help you that much.
When talking to them about it, try not to ask simple questions like “what did you think of it?”, “did you enjoy it?” or “was it any good?”. These are subjective terms which often ignore the fact that they might not even be your target audience.
Instead, it’s better to ask questions about the piece like "does it flow well?”, “did you understand the second paragraph?” or “does the conclusion summarise all the points?”. These will give you a better insight into how the piece works as a whole.
Also, remember to take criticism in good grace and not be personally offended by it. Hearing criticism of your own work, however well-meaning it is, can be tough, but take it on the chin and in the manner in which it is given. You did ask after all!
8. GO BACKWARDS
OK, this one might sound a little strange, but trust us, it works. When you have a finished document, at least in terms of content, start reading it backwards, sentence by sentence. We said it was a strange one, but hear us out.
When sentences are reversed, obviously the flow of the text is lost, but that is when your brain has the opportunity to focus more on the words themselves. You don’t have to do this manually, thankfully.
Sites like http://spellbackwards.com (just navigate to the ‘Reverse Words’ tab) and copy and paste your document, one sentence at a time. The site will reverse the order of the words and that’s when you start reading. Starting from the end and working backwards to the beginning. It can be a bit too much to do this by paragraph or as a document as a whole, so stick with doing it a sentence a time.
9. DON’T BEAT YOURSELF UP
Of course, everyone wants their work to be perfect, but there’s no guarantee that you can reach that milestone. When you’re proofreading, many people have the constant niggle in their head that they’re missing ‘something’, so they check again. The feeling remains, so they check again, and again……and again, regardless of whether there are issues to find or not.
As much as we want it to be 100% right, don’t get too hung up on achieving perfection. After 3 or 4 checks, you’ve probably captured all of the glaring errors already. Another 100 checks aren’t going to make much difference, other than to stress you out.
Don’t just keep re-reading it. Don’t keep pouring over it, doubting yourself or your abilities. If you can’t see any errors, it doesn’t mean you’re missing some. More likely you’ve captured them all already. Give yourself a break and if you enjoy what you’ve created and many more people will do too.
10. GET PROFESSIONAL HELP
If despite all these wonderful tips, proofreading just isn’t for you or you want a fresh pair of eyes on it, then it might be time to call in the professionals.
You can hire professional editors and proofreaders via the web or, you know, drop us a message, let us know what you need and we’ll be able to help you thanks to all our collective experience in this field. All our contact details are linked here.
SQUARING THE CIRCLE
Depending on what you’re creating, some degree of proofreading is always going to be necessary to make it the best it can be. Whether it’s a post for your own blog or you’re submitting a piece for a news site, maybe you’re submitting a sample of work to a publisher, whatever it might be, the quality of the writing will reflect on the writer and that is governed by the quality of the proofreading that goes into it.
Also, don’t underestimate how much people value quality content. Errors on a CV could cost you a job interview, errors on an article might mean you don’t get commissioned to write for them again, but most of the most basic errors can be avoided with just a modicum of care (and a little editing and proofreading).
With the wealth of content available online, quality always rises to the top, so taking some time to check your work and you might find it makes all the difference.
We hope these 10 simple tips can help you when it comes to proofreading your own work. Have we missed anything? Do you have any of your own techniques that you use when proofreading your work that we haven’t included here? Let us know what they are so our community can share in them too.
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