Proofreading: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need

Proofreading is critical.

Proofreading 101: Everything you need to know in one guide

Yet there’s a common myth people fall for time and time again: The idea that proofreading isn’t anywhere near as important as writing.

If you have fallen for this myth, you’ve made a big mistake.

Fortunately, you can put your proofreading woes behind you with some simple tricks and tips.

In this article you’ll discover:

  • What proofreaders actually do.
  • What kind of proofreader never to hire.
  • How the human brain prevents most people from proofreading well.
  • The type of skills you need to be a good proofreader.
  • A time-saving technique that will eradicate most of your proofreading problems.

Let’s delve straight in with the basics.

What is Proofreading?

Proofreading is a critical part of the writing process that involves scrutinizing a written document to identify and rectify grammar, punctuation, spelling, and vocabulary errors.

Good writing always involves modification and revision, and proofreading is a fundamental part of this process.

Proofreaders generally have one primary objective: To ensure a written document is absolutely perfect in terms of grammar and vocabulary.

To achieve this, they verify accuracy in the following areas:

  • Sentence structure
  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Spelling
  • Capitalization
  • Consistency
  • Numbers
  • Formatting
  • Typography

Proofreading is the very last step in the writing process. However, just because it comes last, does not mean it is the least important.

Proofreading ensures the document is entirely free of errors and polished to a high standard.

Professional proofreaders take their roles very seriously, and many of them will complete several “passes” through a paper to ensure they have found and corrected all typographical errors, incorrect punctuation, spelling mistakes, and inaccurate words.

Are There Different Types of Proofreading?

As we have established, all proofreaders, regardless of what industry or niche they operate in will be concerned with findings and correcting mistakes.

However, there are different types of proofreading.

Let’s look at three of the most common.

General Media Proofreading

Media proofreaders work with documents that are intended for print and online publication, e.g., books, newspapers, blog articles, marketing literature, etc. Profreaders who are responsible for revising print media look for a range of errors, including formatting, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and typology. In some settings, they may also be responsible for fact-checking.

Translation Proofreading

Translation proofreaders operate in a slightly different way to other types of proofreaders because there is more than one language involved. A translation proofreader will perform all the tasks executed by a general proofreader, such as correcting grammatical and punctuation errors, but he or she will also take meaning into consideration and ensure the language used mirrors that typically employed by a native English speaker.

Academic Proofreading

Academic proofreading involves checking academic documents, such as dissertations, thesis, essays, or assignments, for errors.

Academic proofreaders also have expert knowledge of academic style guides; i.e., the published guidelines that students are required to adhere to within their academic documents.

Academic proofreaders will check the formatting, citations, references, and general presentation of the final documents against these guidelines to ensure the paper is in full compliance with requirements.

What’s the Difference Between Proofreading and Editing?

Although it is very common for people to perceive editing and proofreading as interchangeable terms, they are actually two completely different processes that should be applied at different stages in the publication process.

Both proofing techniques require attention to detail, patience, and care, but they focus on totally different aspects of writing and, therefore, necessitate different approaches.

Editing

What is editing?

Editing comes before proofreading and should be performed when you have finished the first draft of a written document.

Editing involves reading through the entire document to see how well-organized, coherent, and easy to read it is.

As you progress through the document, you will make changes to improve the language choice, structure of arguments, flow, and readability.

At this stage of the review process, you will also check for spelling, grammar, style, and punctuation mistakes.

If you use a professional English editor to perform editing on your behalf, he or she will help you improve your writing and ensure it is consistent and logical.

Essentially, editors will help you transform your written English from good to great while maintaining your own writing style and voice.

When you should order editing services: When you feel that your written English needs more than a basic check for mistakes and would benefit from the input of a professional English editor who can assist you to restructure the copy and improve the effectiveness of your writing.

Proofreading

What is proofreading?

Proofreading comes after editing and is the final stage of the editing process.

Proofreading involves looking for, and correcting, spelling, grammar, style, typography, formatting, and punctuation mistakes.

It takes a great deal of patience to methodically read through your final document to find errors that you have missed. That’s why so many people dread this stage of the document refinement process.

You may be tempted to rely on automatic grammar and spelling checkers to perform proofreading on your behalf; however, this is far from a good idea as these systems are not reliable and cannot truly understand written English in the context for which it was intended.

You can read more about that later in this document.

When you should order proofreading services: When you want a final check for any lingering spelling, grammatical, or punctuation mistakes.

Can I Proofread My Own Work?

You will hear proofreaders and editors, us included, tell you time and time again that you should not rely solely on your own proofreading.

At the highest level, this is because you were heavily involved in the process of creating the document. As such, no matter how many times you check it, there will invariably be some errors you miss: Your eyes see what’s on the page, but your brain interprets what it wants—or expects—to read, not always what is actually there.

As such, if a document is important to you, you should enlist the services of a professional proofreader or ask a friend or relative to peer edit the text for you.

This ‘fresh set of eyes’ will help you identify all the mistakes in a document.

A further advantage of using a qualified proofreader is that he or she will be an English expert and will have advanced knowledge of vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Qualified proofreaders are ideally placed to add value to your written document and make it shine in a manner you couldn’t achieve yourself.

How Can I Become a Better Proofreader?

Before we talk about specific skills, let me set you a challenge.

Think you have what it takes to be a great proofreader?

If you do, then give this simple test a go.

There are 14 misspelled words in the next section of this post. If you can spot them all, you are perfect material for a job in proofreading.

If not, you can learn how to improve your proofreading skills with our proofreading tips.

Proofreading Tips

Proofreading Tip 1. Rise to the Challenge

The majority of you probably perceive proofreading as a dull, arduous task that you’d rather put off for another day.

But it’s likely that you feel the same way about cleaning and ironing. Or maybe even just making your bed.

You don’t stop all chores just because you don’t enjoy them, do you?

Sooner or later, you have to face up to that pile of ironing or that unwashed car.

Now, if someone challenged you to do something, chances are, you’re more likely to approach it with a little more gusto: You have a point to prove, and this makes you more interested in the task ahead.

Say, for example, someone said that you and a friend had to each clean a window and the person who cleaned it the best would win $100.

Suddenly cleaning a window wouldn’t be so tedious and, the chances are, you would throw yourself into the task with all your effort.

To proofread copy thoroughly, you need to approach the task with that type of mindset. You are challenged to find mistakes in the written text; the more you find and correct, the better the final document will be.

Don’t believe that a certain mindset can change your approach to proofreading? Think back to the challenge we gave you at the beginning of this article.

Did you find any misspelled words yet? Are you searching for errors?

The truth is, we lied, there are no errors.

But I bet you’re studying this text far more closely than you would be if you were simply perusing… and that’s how you rise to the challenge when proofreading copy!

Proofreading Tip 2: Get The Mindset

Quite often, people focus all their energies on the content of an article or a written document and rejoice in its completion once the final word is typed.

However, the document isn’t complete if it contains mistakes.

All that effort you placed into writing a fantastic sales article or potentially ground-breaking thesis is wasted if the written English isn’t flawless.

Now, imagine you have actually already secured a deal for your thesis or article to be published in a major publication, and it will be visible to millions of people who will score your work. Would you omit the proofreading stage then?

I expect not.

The work you do write often has a chance of being seen by millions of people, especially if you publish online articles or websites. What’s more, customers, website visitors, professors, and other readers do actually score your work. They do this by purchasing your products, linking to your site, leaving comments on your blog, or grading your essay.

For this reason, each and every time you hit save and deem a work complete, imagine that’s the last time it will ever be proofread before millions of people see it—are you truly confident it is mistake-free and positions you in the best possible light?

Get the right mindset for proofreading copy, and you will find it much easier!

Proofreading Tip 3: Practice

With most things in life, the more you do something, the better you get at it.

Proofreading is no exception.

Yet, ironically, people who are the least confident in their written English are the most likely to skip the proofreading stage.

That’s what’s known as burying your head in the sand.

This type of approach is not rising to the challenge; it’s confining yourself to be the type of writer who always makes mistakes.

What’s more, it serves to increase the gap between those who are good at proofreading and… you.

If you adopt a different mindset and tackle the problem head-on, you’ll get better and better each time you proofread something. You’ll start to recognize what mistakes you make most frequently and will become a better writer in the process.

Proofreading Tip 4: Understand how your brain works

I’ve lost track of the number of times someone has said to me:

“Why do native English speakers need proofreaders? Surely they can read their own work and find the mistakes?”

Well, the answer to this is extremely complicated, not least because proofreading involves an understanding of complex grammar rules; however, we won’t venture down that particular rabbit warren here.

We’re interested in the role the brain plays in the proofreading process.

For that, we turn to the research of Daniel Kahneman. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman provides some fascinating insights into why most people struggle to proofread their own writing effectively.

And the reason is simple: The human brain isn’t wired for proofreading.

Kahneman describes how the brain utilizes two different systems of thought: System 1 and System 2.

We use System 1 when we are reading. This thought system helps us to quickly and effectively decipher simple sentences. For example, the key message that flashes on a billboard advertisement half-way through a ballgame.

System 1 is great because it helps us process key information in a relatively quick time.

System 2 is much different. This is the system that performs methodical calculations. It is very slow but very effective.

You’re likely to engage system two when you first approach a strategic task, such as planning how to write an essay.

Most people don’t simply sit down and start writing; they logically think through how the document will flow and what information needs to be included.

And guess what else System 2 is great for…

Proofreading.

It is System 2 that you should be employing as you carefully examine each word and punctuation mark in your document.

The problem is that System 1 is usually in charge. And this is where the issue with brain wiring comes into play.

System 1 likes to simplify things. This is how it achieves its speed. As such, when you’re reading, System 1 typically takes control and will gloss over many small errors. This is particularly the case if you’re reading a document you wrote yourself; System 1 will see what it thinks you’ve written, not what you’ve actually written.

So how can you overcome this issue?

By proofreading, not reading.

This starts by being explicitly aware of your limitations.

You can’t overcome how your brain works. However, you can acknowledge the issue and change your behavior to address it.

When proofreading written text, approach the task in the knowledge that it’s highly likely you have made mistakes. This will help you to stop System 1 in its tracks and call on the assistance of System 2 to perform a logical and methodical examination of the text.

There are plenty of proofreading tips circulating the web (our top ones are listed below). Typically, you’ll be told to do things like:

Read each word at a time slowly

Read the text backward

Read the text aloud

These techniques are so effective because they take System 1 out of play and get System 2 to work.

6 Quick Proofreading Tips

  • Do not rely on automated spelling and grammar checkers alone.
    Use these programs for your first pass through a document by all means, but do not use them as your sole proofreading effort. These programs operate with a very limited number of rules, and they are simply not capable of identifying and correcting all English mistakes.
  • Proofread for only one kind of error at a time.
    One of the best techniques for ensuring you leave no stones unturned when proofreading a document is to complete several passes through it, focusing on one type of mistake at once. This helps you to maintain focus and approach the task more methodically.
  • Read the document backward, word by word.
    Reading the document backward, from the last word to the very first word, encourages you to focus on each word in isolation, and you are less likely to miss mistakes.
  • Circle every punctuation mark in the document.
    This lesser-known technique forces you to look at each and every punctuation mark. By doing so, you are prompted to question the appropriateness and accuracy of its use.
  • Read the document aloud.
    By reading the document out loud, you switch from a visual analysis of written English to an aural one, and this can help you to spot mistakes that you have previously missed.
  • Research.
    You cannot be expected to know every single English grammar and style rule under the sun. Be prepared to stop every now and again and look rules up. This will help you to become a much better proofreader in the long run.

When you should order proofreading services: When you are confident that your written English is good, but you feel you could benefit from a second set of eyes to ensure that it is absolutely perfect and doesn’t contain any mistakes.

What Skills Do Proofreaders Need?

Here’s the anatomy of the ideal proofreader.

A list of the skills proofreaders need

Proofreading isn’t for everyone. It is a highly focused task that involves attention to detail, patience, commitment, and an expert understanding of grammar, vocabulary, and punctuation.

The best proofreaders typically possess the following skills and characteristics:

  • Attention to detail: A conscientious approach to detailed work.
  • Strong written English skills, including an advanced command of spelling, grammar, and punctuation rules.
  • Broad vocabulary and ability to express ideas clearly.
  • The motivation to work independently and meet deadlines.
  • Long attention span: An ability to stay focused for an extended period of time.
  • Good judgment to gauge which changes are necessary.
  • Familiarity with the production process for books and documents.
  • Flexibility: Capability to work within the style of the author and publisher, rather than impose their own ideas.
  • Good interpersonal skills to build working relationships and contacts with potential clients.
  • Confidence with computers.
  • Knowledge of style guides and formatting rules.
  • Commitment to learning and keeping abreast of style guide changes.

Does Grammar Software Proofread Effectively?

Spelling and grammar-checking applications serve a really good purpose. However, if you’re looking to improve your writing and ensure it is free of errors, you should be extremely wary of relying purely on grammar software because it has the following limitations:

  • Grammar is a contextual art and science. The way in which sentences are structured and vocabulary is employed depends on the context in which it is used. Computerized checkers are not capable of assessing written English within a context because they can’t actually read.
  • Grammar software is built to assess a variety of programmed rules and syntax. It isn’t possible to develop a database that is capable of understanding the various permutations that are present in the English language.
  • Software can only point out that something maybe wrong. They cannot confirm that it is wrong; you will need to do that for yourself.
  • Some of the better grammar checking software packages will give you advice on how to correct an error, but they will not be able to 100% confirm the correct action to take. Unless you have an advanced knowledge and understanding of the English language, like our professional human proofreaders and editors, you will often not know if the suggestions should be accepted or not.
  • Grammar software will help you to identify grammatical and spelling errors, but it will not improve the flow and quality of your writing in the way that a professional editor can because software-based grammar checkers are unable to make suggestions as to how you can make your writing more powerful and concise. Human editors can tell you how to make your writing better. For example, if you were writing a horror story, you may start with the following phrase:

It was a very cold night. I could hear the wind, and I couldn’t sleep.

A grammar checker will tell you that the sentence is perfectly fine, which it is. A professional editor will help you to improve it:

It was a dreadfully cold, dark night. I could hear the wind rattling the window shutters, and I tossed and turned, unable to sleep.

A final word:

Many people think that their English is of a satisfactory level and that they don’t need the services of a proofreader.

This is completely untrue; everyone can benefit from having their written text checked by a second set of eyes.

While the spell checking software offered by word processing packages is useful for checking the final draft of a piece of written copy, it is incapable of detecting all errors and understanding the context within which the text was written.

As such, if a document is important to you, you should always seek the services of a qualified proofreader

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