Proofreading? Know what to look for

Eleanor Meecham | February 3, 2016

Most people think of proofreading as checking for spelling mistakes. But that’s just one tiny part of the job. Errors can be anywhere — on the title or contents page, in headers and footers, in graphics, or in numbering.

To do the job properly, you need to know what to look for. Here’s a simple list to get you started.


Thanks to your computer spellchecker, very few errors will actually be ‘spelling mistakes’. You’re more likely to be looking for words that are spelt correctly but aren’t the right word. These are hard to spot as your spellchecker won’t highlight them. For example:

Take special care with:

Image, Security sign with incorrect spelling.

Surveil your work for this common mistake. Image by Silus Grok / CC BY-SA

Extra or missing words

It’s easy to read what you think is there, not what’s really there. Carefully check strings of small words (such as ‘if it is in the…’). It’s also easy to miss repeated words when they span two lines, so check the ends and beginnings of lines carefully.


Check for consistent use of punctuation throughout (for example, single or double quote marks, Oxford comma or not).

Pay attention to punctuation pairs, such as brackets, dashes, and quotation marks. Often, the second one will be missing.

It’s easy to get en and em dashes mixed up — make sure you use them correctly. And be consistent about whether or not you have a space before and after each dash.

Check for consistent hyphenation in frequently used terms.

Image, Sign with unnecessary apostrophe.

Don’t hypnotise people with extra apostrophes. Image by Satish Krishnamurthy / CC BY


Check for consistent capitalisation of frequently used terms.


Placeholders (such as ‘XXX’) are often used when information is to be filled in later. Check that none remain.


Check that lists are parallel (each item uses the same format). For example:

You need to:

You need to:


If the text uses Word’s styles, check that each part of the text has the correct style applied and that all headings are at the correct heading level.

Also check for:

Headers and footers

Check that headers and footers are in the same place on each page. Check that any changes between sections are correct and consistent.


Check that all hyperlinks (both cross-references within the document and links to websites) are styled consistently, and that each one works and goes to the right place.


Check the numbering of headings, tables, figures, footnotes or endnotes, and pages.

Tables and graphics

Check that each table and graphic element has enough written information to make it understandable. Proofread the titles, captions, labels, data, and source information of all tables and graphics.

Image, Weather forecast reading 'Thundery dwonpours'.

Mistakes often hide in simple labels and titles. Image by Richard Smedley / CC BY-SA


Check that each reference in the text has a corresponding entry in the reference list, and that each item in the list is styled consistently.

Table of contents

If the table of contents is manual, make sure that:

If the table of contents is automatic, update it when you’ve finished to take in any changes.

Find out how to make the job easier

Even once you know what to look for, proofreading can be a tricky task. 12 tips for proofreading your own work has tips to make the job easier.

Need more help?

Learn more at our Editing and Proofreading workshop
Ask us to do your proofreading for you

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

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.