Proofreading your own work

Ever wondered why it’s so hard to spot mistakes in your own work? No, you don’t need glasses – your brain is wired to skip over errors. If quality control is important to you but you don’t have the budget for professional help, deploy these strategies before you hit print.

1 Run a spellcheck…

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but that squiggly red line is everything. It’s a great tool for picking up the stuff you often miss with the naked eye, like when you accidentally type the same word twice, or (heaven forbid!) use the wrong version of your/you’re. As a magazine subeditor, I was taught that best practice was to run a spellcheck over every document I worked on, and believe me when I say it has saved many a red face. If the program you’re using doesn’t have a spellcheck function, copy the text into Word and check it there.

2 … But don’t trust spellcheck

As useful as any spellcheck tool is, it’s no match for the human brain. Why? Spellcheck will flip out over unusual names and towns it’s unfamiliar with. Unless you play around with the dictionary settings, it’ll probably insist on US variations such as ‘cozy’ instead of ‘cosy’. If your mistake is spelled correctly (maybe you typed ‘you’ instead of ‘your’, for example), it won’t give you a heads up. And it doesn’t always understand the nuances of modern speech or context, so some of its grammatical suggestions can be way off. You have the power here – use it wisely.

3 Print it out

The innate problem with proofreading your own work is that the brain is too smart for its own good. It automatically corrects errors for you, such as doubled-up words or typos, so you don’t see them until you’ve paid a fortune in letterpress printing. Remember that meme a couple of years back that had everyone arguing about whether they were looking at a blue or white dress? Your brain was autocorrecting the image to make life easier for you, and it does the same thing with words. One of the tricks I use to override this system is to print out the document I’m working on. Just switching to a hard copy can bring overlooked errors to glaring light.

4 Read it out loud

You might feel weird reading your work aloud in an empty room (or to an audience!) but it’s a great way to catch mistakes. Speaking forces your brain to process each word rather than absorb a phrase in full, so you’re more likely to trip over a clunky sentence or a misplaced comma. It’ll help you better understand phrasing and it’s great for targeting overly long sentences.

5 Read each word individually

I like to do this when I’m proofreading something with few words, such as an ad, business card, magazine cover or poster. Look at each word separately, taking the time to really notice how it’s spelled. You might want to do this a few times. Alternatively, use a ruler to read through lengthy copy line by line (especially useful if you have a habit of skim reading).

6 Give it to a friend

Even the most talented writers understand the value of a second pair of eyes on their work. It’s hard to spot typos, but it’s even harder when you were the one to make them. If you have a friend who’s always giggling at the errors in your text messages, ask them to read over your material, especially if it’s a biggie like a wedding invite or job application. If you don’t have a word nerd in your inner circle, don’t stress – that’s exactly what professional proofreaders are for!

7 Leave it a day

If you have the luxury of time, closing the document and stepping away from it for a day will give you much-needed mental space. During the course of a day we overload our minds with visual information, making it tough for your brain to focus on fine details. Step away from the screen to give your inner proofreading system a reboot.

8 Check everything

I’ve heard horror stories about wedding invitations going out with the wrong date or the groom’s name spelled incorrectly. You wouldn’t think it was possible, but life can be cruel! If you want to avoid this nightmare, triple-check every important piece of information, even if you think you know it by heart. Dates, names, times, prices – you can’t be too careful.

9 Look at the big picture

Proofreading isn’t just about words – it’s about making sure your project makes sense visually, too. If you’re proofing a poster, social media tiles or an invite, for example, take a minute to check that design emphasis has been placed on the right words, that text hasn’t dropped off the page, and that it’s clear and easy to read.

10 Let it go

At some point, you have to send your precious work off into the world, flaws and all. Proofreading has a funny way of making you reluctant to let go, but it’s a trap – the more you tinker, the greater your chances of accidentally inserting an error! If you’ve ticked off these processes, reassure yourself that you’ve done your best, take a deep breath and put your awesome project out there.

No time to do the fine-tuning yourself? Drop me a line to find out how I can help professionally proofread or edit your projects.