Proofreading Techniques for Students, Writers, and Editors

Cover image for blog post about proofreading techniques

Believe it or not, sometimes writing something is the easy part. Just because someone is a great writer doesn’t necessarily mean their copy is immediately ready to go. Writing is like unearthing a gem from the ground – a great start, but it needs to be polished before you can put it on display. Whether it’s an academic essay, professional website copy or a print magazine, a final proofreading layer is essential to ensure the text is flawless before it reaches its audience.

Why proofread in the first place?

An example of a newspaper headline that could have used some proofreading techniques.
  • Studies show that 81% of people notice a typo, and it negatively impacts the way that they perceive the writer. If your work contains mistakes, people are less likely to trust you, think of you as competent, or do business with you.

  • Not proofreading can lead to embarrassing situations. A particularly bad typo can become a meme for the rest of your life, and not in a good way. A little proofreading will go a long way towards avoiding embarrassing scatological associations like the above example.

  • People can’t tell the difference between an honest mistake and ignorance. Imagine you were writing something and accidentally wrote “their” instead of “they’re” because you were distracted by your neighbour Chad, who loves listening to Pantera at an ungodly volume. The thing is, your readers don’t know whether you know the difference or not – and they definitely don’t know about the Chad Factor™.

  • Unless you’re a professional editor (or just a big word nerd in general), you might not appreciate that something was written flawlessly. But make no mistake: if it’s not proofread, people will notice. It saps the strength from your academic argument, it distracts the reader from what you’re trying to say, and it weakens your image as a brand or individual writer.

In short, proofreading:

  • Ensures your writing is clean and free of silly mistakes.
  • Makes people think you know what you’re doing.
  • Adds a sense of professionalism to your written work.
  • Will protect you from a lifetime of meme-based ridicule.
Desk of a writer, editor, or proofreader.

Solid proofreading techniques

Read it with fresh eyes

Proofreading requires you to be mentally alert. It’s not a relaxing read-through as much as a rigorous examination. Needless to say, that gets pretty tiring, and your eyes might start feeling the strain. Don’t hesitate to take a break if you need to.

Once the words on the page no longer look like words, but random constructions of letters, it’s time to rest. Focus on something else; whether it’s a different part of the thing you’re editing, or going for a walk and coming back refreshed. Don’t spend an hour squinting at something that will end up taking you five minutes later on.

Proofread from multiple perspectives

Read your text word by word, sentence by sentence, and as a whole. Scan up and down the page and focus on different segments. View the page like a dispassionate robot, then look at it through the eyes of a word lover. Covering your bases like this means you will retain the quality of the prose, while also eliminating some of the less pleasant aspects.

Some people suggest reading backwards, which will allow you to pick up on spelling mistakes or typos. Common mistakes people make are writing words like ‘the’ or ‘to’ twice. The brain tends to skip over these errors when reading normally, especially when you’ve written them yourself. If reading backwards works for you, that’s great. If it doesn’t, don’t worry. Try some of the other methods in this post, and perfect the proofreading technique that gets the best results for you personally.

Image of a writer or editor using proofreading techniques

Read it out loud

Note: to avoid getting kicked out of libraries and coffee shops, you might want to practise using your internal monologue for this. Use realistic intonation. Listen to it like someone’s reading you a story. If you find your inner voice being disrupted by a strange comma (or a lack of one), odd phrasing, or if you end up losing track of a sentence, it’s a good sign that there are some potential improvements to be done. Good writing should hold up to scrutiny when read out loud, unless you’re James Joyce.

Do a reality check

Proofreading something through the eyes of an editor is different than reading it as a normal person, and requires you to think about who the target audience is. Are you writing an accessible text that most people should understand? In that case ”lavish trays of delicacies exuberantly festooned with a cornucopia of celebratory delights” might not be the best way of describing snacks at a child’s birthday party. It might actually not be the best way to describe anything, ever.

Think about what your father, sister, or friend would say if they read it. Be honest. Alternatively, if you’ve got someone around, get them to read it out loud. This is also a great way of seeing if the prose works or not. Are you writing an academic text for a professor who’s known for loving some slightly pretentious language? Elaborate away, and get as needlessly complex as you like! Are you trying to get normal people to understand complex information? Keep it simple.

Heed Usher’s warning: don’t get caught up

If you have any experience with writers and editors, you might have noticed that people in this field veer slightly towards the neurotic side of the spectrum. Editors especially have a reputation to get a bit obsessed about small details. This isn’t surprising, considering a big part of the job is to get hung up on minutiae.

Pedantry comes with the territory. But sometimes it’s important to take a step back and think about the bigger picture. If you find yourself stressing over whether or not to add that comma, constantly inserting and removing it to see what looks better, take a step back. Do what your instinct tells you to do, then leave it alone for a while. Come back to it in ten, thirty, or sixty minutes. Sleep on it. It’ll all make sense eventually.

Wrangle your adjectives

I’d hesitate to say that there are many hard and fast rules when it comes to defining ‘good’ writing. People have different styles. Each style has its own merits. If it works, it works. With that being said, one thing to look for is something like the below:

“This fantastic tour, set in a picturesque medieval castle, lets adventurous visitors do a fascinating deep-dive into the rich and interesting history of the wonderful and vibrant nation of Estonia.”

Without getting too Hemingway about it (either the author or the text editor, you pick), sometimes less is more. How you edit the above sentence will depend on the context of the copy; if it was for a standard travel website, I would end up with something like the below:

“This tour, set in a picturesque medieval castle, lets visitors do a deep-dive into Estonia’s rich and vibrant history.”

Think carefully about the adjectives you use, and whether they’re the most appropriate ones. If every noun has an adjective (or two) in front of it, it takes away from the message and becomes needlessly long-winded without adding meaning.

Work station for a proofreader

Pretend you’re reading someone else’s writing

Try to be dispassionate and remove yourself from the situation. Don’t just read it in your own voice. Think about it objectively, and consider how someone else would read this. If someone you didn’t like very much wrote this, what would you think? Would you go “Oh, I guess they might be pretty good at writing after all” or would you think their phrasing was a bit off? How about if a writer you admire wrote it?

Focus on clarity and structure

You might know what the writer’s intention is. Hell, you might actually be the writer, and in that case I would really hope you know what you meant. But not everyone will. This issue is especially common in academic writing, like essays or other assignments. The writer often has a difficult abstract idea that needs to be put into words. Easier said than done!

What might make sense to you, after having mulled it over for a few hours, could be completely unintuitive for someone who’s reading your conclusion for the first time. Are you skipping any steps? Is the structure of your argument sound? Does it seem like you’re getting a conclusion out of thin air? Take some time to really think about what you’re saying, and build your point up in a solid and structured way.

Picture of a typewriter and sunflower as used by an editor

Break your proofreading down into stages

It’s hard to look at a text and try to do everything at once. Instead of simultaneously keeping an eye on homonyms, repetition, punctuation, typos, and overall clarity, focus on one of these at a time. Read the text once and just fix all of the little superficial typos. After these are done, check the punctuation. Should that comma really be there? Is that semi-colon appropriate? Sometimes it can be as simple as adding a full stop that accidentally went missing.

Now that the superficial stuff is out of the way, and you’re certain that the basics are there, try hunting for repetition. Every writer has certain ‘safety’ words that they fall back on, deliberately or unconsciously – think of words like beautiful, stunning, significant. Find out words that get over-used and see if there are alternatives. Similarly, if they’re describing a proper noun, make sure to keep things fresh by avoiding too much repetition.

In summary…

When proofreading, try to focus on using as many of the below techniques as necessary/appropriate:

  1. Read it with fresh eyes
  2. Proofread from multiple perspectives
  3. Read it out loud
  4. Do a reality check
  5. Don’t get caught up
  6. Wrangle your adjectives
  7. Pretend you’re reading someone else’s writing
  8. Focus on clarity and structure
  9. Break your proofreading down into stages

Next, let’s try to actually use some of these proofreading techniques.

Proofreading example

Remember your Pantera-loving neighbour from earlier? Here’s something he wrote for his zine, which he’s asked you to edit.

Phil Anselmo is argably the greatest heavy metal vocalist of all time, Phil Anselmo was in Pantera, and Phils known for his wide vocal range. Anselmo was all so the frontman for Down. In 2015, Phil Anselmo won the Musical Artist of the Year award.”

First, let’s start by fixing any typos. In this case the ones that stick out are ‘arguably’ and ‘also’. If we correct these, this is what we end up with:

Phil Anselmo is arguably the greatest heavy metal vocalist of all time, Phil Anselmo was in Pantera, and Phils known for his wide vocal range. Anselmo was also the frontman for Down. In 2015, Phil Anselmo won the Musical Artist of the Year award.”

Next, let’s focus on the punctuation. It’s not bad, and just needs a few small changes. Let’s add a full stop instead of a comma, and an apostrophe here and there.

Phil Anselmo is arguably the greatest heavy metal vocalist of all time. Phil Anselmo was in Pantera, and Phil’s known for his wide vocal range. Anselmo was also the frontman for Down. In 2015, Phil Anselmo won the Musical Artist of the Year award.”

Now that the punctuation’s out of the way, there are no superficial typos left to fix. This means we can focus on structure and repetition:

Phil Anselmo is arguably the greatest heavy metal vocalist of all time. As the frontman for bands including Pantera and Down, he’s known for his wide vocal range. In 2015, Anselmo won the Musical Artist of the Year award.

In the end, we end up with:

  • A paragraph free of typos
  • A clear and concisely structured explanation of who Phil Anselmo is
  • No needless repetition
  • One happy Pantera-loving neighbour

Proofreading is a crucial part of the writing and editing process, and approaching it with a focused plan of attack will give you great results in terms of eliminating typos and making your texts flawless. I hope that this post shared some interesting proofreading tips and techniques with you, and that you found something useful; at the very least, I hope you enjoyed the Usher reference.

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