“The true proof-reader,” wrote John Wilson, head of The University Press in Cambridge, Mass., “… should be a lover of literature, familiar with the classics of all languages, with the results accomplished by science, and indeed with every subject that concerns his fellow-men…. [he should be] a man of much patience, well versed in the art of deciphering incorrigible manuscripts.” Okay, that was in 1901, so aside from the totally un-PC gender-specificism of his thought, he’s being a bit of a proofreading drama queen, as well. Still, proofreading is an important skill to develop, especially if you’re in a communications business.
Since there’s no one method of proofreading that works for everyone, pick and choose from the following tips and create your own method – and then follow it each time you proof a document.
Proof but don’t read: When you read, you subconsciously fix the mistakes. There’s a fine line between reading and proofing – stay on the right side of it.
Tidy up your desk – you’re your own worst interrupter when things catch your eye.
Content-ment: Check that contents page numbers and headings match with the actual copy in the document.
Abbreviate to alleviate: Check that abbreviations have been defined at first use.
Bullet proof: Look to see that all your bulleted or numbered lists are formatted similarly.
The dating scene: Ensure that dates and days of the week match – if copy says Tuesday, Nov 7, make sure Nov. 7 is a Tuesday.
Divide and conquer: Divide your task into several parts, completing one before starting the next.
Forever format: To check formatting, scan the "edges" of the document and look for anything that doesn't look right. Then look at the overall page: Does it appear balanced? For example, is the text consistently justified or consistently left aligned? Make sure there's only one space after a period. Check page numbers and footnotes.
Hard knocks: Always proof from a hard copy. Don't try to proof a document from your computer screen; I promise that you'll miss errors this way.
A backwards glance: To proof for spelling, read the document backwards. When each individual word is looked at, outside the context of a sentence, you’re less likely to miss spelling errors. (However, reading backwards will not allow you to spot homophone errors – words that sound alike but are spelled differently: to/too/two, are/our, their/there/they're, and so on. You have to check these by skimming the paper forward.)
Once is never enough: After corrections have been made, proof the revised document. First check to see that all the corrections were made, then read over the document one more time to make sure you didn't miss something the first time around!
Know thyself... and thy own typical mistakes. Make a list of the errors you make repeatedly. Proofread for one type of error at a time. If commas are your most frequent problem, go through the paper checking just that one problem. Then proofread again for the next-most-frequent problem.
Time on your hands: Allow yourself some time between writing a document and proofreading so you can return to it with a fresh mind and eye.
Search parties: Use the search function to find mistakes you're likely to make. Search for "it," for instance, if you confuse "its" and "it's."
Circle back: Circle or highlight every punctuation mark. This forces you to look at each one.
Avoid interruptions: Move to a conference room and don’t take your BlackBerry. Forward your phone to voice mail. Turn off your iPod. Put down the Red Bull. Don't check blogs. Stop IMing your girlfriend. Stop texting your boyfriend. And please, no sexting while proofreading.
Color my world: Use a colored pen so your corrections stand out.
Cap and trade: SEPARATELY PROOF ANY TEXT THAT APPEARS IN ALL CAPS AND DO IT MORE PAINSTAKINGLY. TYPOS AND MISSPELLINGS ARE MORE DIFFICULT TO SEE IN ALL CAPS. I DON'T KNOW WHY, BUT IT'S TRUE.
Double, double, toil and trouble: Double check:
The humorist Dave Barry once wrote, “proofread carefully to see if you any words out." That said, there’s just nothing too funny about silly mistakes in an otherwise smart document. It undercuts you, your team, and your employer. Worse, it’s just plain embarrassing.
Finally, and I know this may be asking too much, but have fun, reward yourself and, if in the end a mistake creeps through, just learn from the experience and move on. Life’s short enough as it is.