A company’s expensive color brochure had one small problem. Instead of saying the business provided a “rapid turn around,” the brochure said it provided a “rapid run around.”
Definitely not the same thing!
How could such a mistake happen? It’s easy because we read:
• The outside shapes of words, not the individual letters
• Words in phrases, not just individual words
• Words in context, not isolated from the sentence’s meaning.
Specifically, aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
Scary, isn’t it?
However, here are some tips for proofreading success.
First read for the big picture. Does the document make sense? Does it present its information logically and clearly? Does the title or headline reflect what is in the copy?
Next, read for details. Pay particular attention to common errors, such as:
• Subject-verb agreement (e.g., “He swims. They swim.”)
• Sentence fragments
• Pronoun references
• Missing words, and
• Duplicated words.
Prepare the document
Most people find it easier to proofread from the printed page, rather than from the computer screen. Try printing the copy double-spaced, preferably with a large font and wide margins. This gives you plenty of space for notations.
Or you could change the look of the document. Making the text a different size, color or style may trick your brain into thinking it’s seeing something new and give you a different perspective on the copy.
Time your proofreading
If you’re proofreading your own writing, take a break between finishing the draft and proofreading. This can give you a fresh perspective on the document. Ideally, proofread more than once, in short blocks of time. Take breaks between sessions. This will help your concentration.
Obviously, this is not always possible. I once had to proofread a 300-page book in 24 hours. I got through it once, but only once. But, in general, the more times you proofread, the better.
Read the document aloud. I have been amazed at what I discover this way, because reading aloud forces me to read every word.
Or have someone read the document to you. According to Literary Education Online, we often “hear” more errors than we see.
Or read the document into a tape recorder and play it back as you follow along on the printed page.
Focus on the words
Run your finger along the text. Point at each word as you go along. I feel silly doing this, but it helps.
Or use two pieces of blank white paper to cover all but one sentence at a time. This can keep you from being distracted by the other sentences.
Alternatively, slide a blank sheet of paper down the page as you read. This focuses your eyes and helps you review the document line by line. I find this technique especially helpful if the font or line spacing is small.
Read what is actually on the page, not what you think is there. (This is a challenge, especially when reading your own writing.)
Read the copy backwards paragraph by paragraph. I find this effective the second or third time I go through a document. “Starting at the end” helps me catch mistakes I might otherwise miss.
Keep a dictionary, thesaurus and stylebook handy so that you can easily check things. I use The Associated Press Stylebook, but any respected stylebook will do.
Find a quiet place to work. I would love to proofread at the gym, but multi-tasking is not always a good idea. Stick to places where you can concentrate and will not be interrupted.
Keep your skills sharp. Look for mistakes when you read magazines, newspapers and the like. Chances are you’ll find plenty. (I consistently embarrass my husband by telling waiters about the typos in menus, but that’s another story.)
Some information for this article came from the following sources:
LEO (Literary Education Online)
Purdue University Online Writing Lab
The Writing Center