12 tips for proofreading your own work

Eleanor Meecham | February 3, 2016

If you write anything at all, chances are you’ll sometimes have to proofread it yourself. You should always try to get someone else to do it if you can, but sometimes that’s just not possible.

Here are 12 tips to make the job easier.

1. Get a friend to do a quick once-over

Even if you have to do the detailed proofreading yourself, a quick read-through by a colleague or friend will still help. Spotting mistakes in other people’s work is much easier than checking your own work. They’ll be able to see all sorts of things you’ve grown blind to.

Ideally, pick someone who doesn’t know about your topic. Ask them to point out anything they don’t understand, such as technical terms that you need to explain.

2. Leave it a while

Time away from your writing gives you fresh perspective and helps you see where the problems are. Leave it for as long as you can before you re-read it. You’ll be amazed at what you spot with fresh eyes.

Image, Detour sign with incorrect spelling.

You’ll see the problem when you get back. Image by timlewisnm CC BY-SA

3. Print it out

Reading your work on paper instead of on the computer screen helps you see it in a new way. It also makes it easier to cover bits up, get closer, and focus on one line at a time.

4. Keep your style sheet and style guide handy

If you’re working on a long document, you might keep a style sheet while writing to record things like specialist words, capitalisation, and hyphenation. If your organisation has a style guide, get to know it!

Keep both of these things handy while you’re proofreading. They’ll help you make everything consistent.

Buy a copy of The Write Style Guide for New Zealanders

5. Get rid of distractions

Perhaps the hardest thing about proofreading is concentrating. Make it easier to focus by clearing away clutter, switching off the internet, and taking the phone off the hook.

Image, Very messy desk space.

Do not try to proofread here. Image by Jeffrey Beall / CC BY-ND

6. Slow down

Because we usually read for meaning, we’re not used to focusing carefully on each word. To pick up errors, you need to slow down and look at each word in turn.

Be aware that this sort of concentration is hard. Your mind will wander. Focus hard for short bursts and give yourself plenty of breaks.

7. Know what you’re looking for

As well as checking spelling and punctuation, proofreading means checking numbers, headings, page headers and footers, page numbers, graphics, tables, cross-references, and formatting, among other things. You need a good list to keep you on track.

See our list of what to look for

8. Check one thing at a time

You won’t be able to check for everything at once. For example, you can’t check formatting while you’re concentrating on spelling. A better approach is to check one thing at a time. This breaks a proofreading job into small, manageable tasks, making it easier to concentrate on each. Cross each thing off your list once you’ve checked it.

9. Sound it out

Find some space away from other people and read the text aloud. If you prefer, read silently but sound out each word in your head. For long words, you can even sound out each syllable to help you spot missing letters.

Image, Emergency exit sign with a spelling mistake.

Sounding out each syllable would have helped here. Image by Bob B. Brown / CC BY-ND

10. Look at it upside down

Okay, not actually upside down. But try reading each paragraph in reverse. Start with the final paragraph and end with the first. You’ll be able to focus more on errors when you’re not distracted by the overall story.

11. Use your technology

Use Microsoft Word’s spellchecker. Set the proofreading language to make sure you’re applying the spelling used in your country, then use the ‘Ignore’ and ‘Add’ commands to build a dictionary customised for you. But be aware that this is just one step towards a thorough proofread.

If you can’t print out your work and you have to proofread on screen, turn on Show/Hide. This will help you identify things like extra spaces. Also, zoom in so any mistakes will be easier to see.

Use Word’s ‘Find’ function to check the consistency of terms you’ve used a lot. For example, check you’ve written ‘PowerPoint’ each time (not ‘powerpoint’, ‘Power Point’, or ‘Power-point’) by searching for ‘power’. Or check you haven’t missed any macrons from ‘Māori’ by searching for ‘Maori’.

Always update an automatic table of contents at the very end, in case you’ve changed headings or pagination.

Image, Bookshop sign with a spelling mistake.

Really should have used the spellchecker. Image by Orin Zebest / CC BY

12. Accept that nothing’s ever quite perfect

Your best proofreading often happens after you’ve sent or published your writing. This is known as Muphry’s Law (sic). Don’t worry — even award-winning novels have the occasional typo. This just shows that writers, editors, and proofreaders are human too.

A big thanks to Corinna and Meredith, our chief proofreaders, for their expert ideas for this blog post.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.