How to Proofread

With electronic spell checkers and grammar checkers, proofreading has never been more important–because those electronic helpers make the most horrendous mistakes.

For example, on one marketing piece a technology company boasted about their significant roll in the industry. They didn’t mean “roll”–they meant “role.” Another company described “high preforming associates” when they meant “performing.” Electronic spell checkers okayed all the mistakes; grammar checkers are even worse because they often recommend changes that are absolutely wrong.

So manual proofreading is necessary. But the skill may not be one your staff is familiar with. Here are a few pointers:

  • Never read backwards word by word. You might possibly find errors, but without the context you won’t know that “preforming” should be “performing,” so you’ve reduced yourself to the skills of an electronic spell checker.
  • Start a short Style Guide to ensure consistency. For example, are you using $5M or $5 million or five million dollars? Are you hyphenating multi-million or not? Are you using US or U.S. or USA?
  • Proofread the highlighted, bolded, italic, extra large text first and separately. For some reason, formatting makes errors harder to see.
  • Check illustrations against their captions and against the text where they are mentioned. The description and caption often vary from the illustration itself.
  • Look for formatting inconsistencies such as random changes in font size and font; inconsistent use of bolding and italics; extra or missing spacing between words and sentences; missing periods; and inconsistent use of commas.
  • When you come across a spelling error in the course of proofreading, do a global search and replace for that same error in other places. That way you guarantee finding all the similar mistakes.
  • Remember: no matter how technical content is, if a sentence does not make grammatical sense, it is wrong. Even Einstein wrote in grammatically correct sentences.
  • Always check proper names, especially of people, companies and organizations.
  • Make sure acronyms are defined at their first use and that the acronym matches the words. It’s easy for the National Association of Amphibious Animals to be abbreviated NAA instead of NAAA (or NAOAA, if that’s their preference).
  • If the text promises a list of five, make sure five items appear in the list. Counting is part of proofreading.
  • If there is a table of contents, check it against the actual contents. Also check the list of figures or tables against the actual figures or tables in the text. Even automatically generated tables sometimes fail to automatically generate or include text that is mistakenly marked as a title or heading.

That list is just a starting place for effective proofreading but it indicates the scope of what electronic spell checkers and grammar checkers don’t do.

If you have a large document, website or series of documents that should be proofread, please contact TWP Marketing and Technical Communications to see if I can help. I specialize in writing and editing but I do proofread if the project is large enough.

What Professional Proofreaders and Editors Do Best

Once electronic spell checkers and grammar checkers entered the scene, most people forgot how to proofread. But proofreading and editing are still important for two reasons: first, spell checkers and grammar checkers are terribly flawed; and second, proofreading and editing are about more than spelling and grammar.

A professional proofreader and editor will check for inconsistencies in format and content; for cross-references and links that go to the wrong place; and for failures of logic, gaps in information, or unanswered questions that readers might have. We are all prone to mistakes like telling the reader there are seven of something but listing six or eight. Once we have written and revised copy several times, we are likely to overlook missing words (especially pronouns) and even entire concepts because we expect them to be there.

As a professional proofreader and editor of technical and nontechnical websites, white papers, brochures, blogs, and other marketing collateral, I have found that the following steps are always important:

  1. Double check anything that is in bold, a larger font, italics, or other special formatting. Content mistakes are easy to overlook when format catches your eye.
  2. Try every link and cross-reference to make sure they are still valid.
  3. Match illustrations against the text. Inevitably, the bar graph will show a 15% increase and the text will refer to a 25% increase.
  4. Print out everything, even if the audience will always read it online. Mistakes will show up in the printed version that are easy to overlook online.
  5. Check all company, product, association and personal names; never assume they are correct.
  6. Create a style guide. Consistency is important on many levels, but certainly necessary to prevent confusion in the audience or coming across as oblivious to details.
  7. Forget about reading the entire text backwards to catch errors. That technique prevents you from catching “its” when you meant “it’s”; makes transitions, punctuation and format meaningless; and will bore you sick after 4 sentences.

Most important, by letting a professional proofreader or editor review your copy, whether it is in print or online, you gain the assurance that your message is not only written the way you want it but the way that your audience will understand. All too often, if we are very familiar with a topic ourselves, we write as if our audience was equally knowledgeable. For example, we might leave gaps in information–we know how we got from point A to point B, but our less knowledgeable customers become lost. Or we use acronyms or terms that are well-known to experts in the field but not necessarily to our customers. A professional proofreader or editor ensures that your words are reaching your audience in the way you intended.

Sharon Bailly founded TWP Marketing & Technical Communications to help companies communicate with their marketplace. Our words mean business.