20 Tips to Proofread Like A Professional

The Haunted Pen - Proofread Like A ProProofreading. Some writers love it, some writers despise it. But whatever your feelings, proofreading is your final task when preparing to share your words with the world.

Writers often read their words the way they believe they wrote them, not how they actually wrote them. This means spelling mistakes, typos and grammatical errors, such as poor sentence structure, wrong choice of words and punctuation can all go unnoticed by the writer. These factors impact the context and readability of the work.

The good news is that proofreading skills can be learned, developed and improved. Where is the best source for information on learning how to proofread, I hear you ask (at least I hope you are).

Fear not my friends, help is at hand and The Haunted Pen is here to save the day!

The best source for hands-on information is a professional proofreader – someone who has spent years honing their skill set, developing tricks and techniques to perfect their proofreading repertoire.

Someone like me…

Once upon a time, in a publishing house far, far away (Rugby, England to be precise), I worked as a professional proofreader for more than six years. Believe me, you do not proofread hundreds, more like thousands, of scientific, technical and medical journal papers without picking up a nugget or two or 20.

Being the giving person that I am, I want to share my hard-earned knowledge with you. So, without further ado, here are 20 professional proofreading tips, procedures and techniques that you can put into practice right here, right now.

1. Set It Aside
Okay, you have just poured heart and soul into your latest masterpiece, but before you start proofreading it, take a step back, take a chill pill and wait. Trust me, the more time you can put between writing and proofreading, the better. Reviewing your work with “fresh” eyes means you will spot those pesky typos and mistakes easier. The rule of thumb is the longer the written content, the more time you should stay away from it. So, if you are writing a novel, four to five weeks is ideal. A blog post can be left for a few hours or overnight.

The Haunted Pen - Proofread Like A Pro2. Get Some Rest
Proofread when your mind is sharp. If you are anything like me, chances are you work best after a good night’s rest or when you’ve given your eyes and mind a break. You will proofread better, more accurately, when you are mentally alert. If you are mentally or physically exhausted, it will be wasted effort as you will not spot errors. You could easily miss a mistake.

3. Control the Environment
When it comes to proofreading, you need a quiet time and area so you can concentrate without interruptions. Close the office door and turn off your phone. The world will still be turning when you put it back on. Make sure you have enough lighting so you do not introduce eyestrain. I like to write while listening to bands like Motorhead and Disturbed, but when it comes to proofreading I want my environment to be as quiet and serene as possible.

4. Do Not Proofread on Screen
Never, and I mean never ever, rely on proofreading on screen and software-assisted grammar checkers. Do you know what a homophone is? A homophone is a word or words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings. Words like hear and here for example. If you answered no to the question, worry not. Grammar and spell checkers do not know either. They also have no clue if you transpose letters in a word by mistake such as from and form.

5. Make It Hard
Print out a hard copy of your document before proofreading it and wherever possible use double-spacing. I know you are all tech savvy and this sounds old school, but this method makes proofreading so much easier as you can write notes and corrections above and below the sentences. Before the tree huggers start burning effigies of me, either print double sided or reuse the marked-up manuscript pages (blank side) for notes, shopping lists or jotting down your pizza and beer order for the next WWE pay-per-view.

The Haunted Pen - Proofread Like A Pro6. Use a Red Pen
When I was training to be a proofreader, the first thing I was told was to use a red pen for marking up errors. Your marked-up changes should be easy to see on the page, clearly written and easily understood. Professional proofreading marks can be found online. Failing that, circle the error and write the correction in the margin or above it on your double-spaced manuscript.

7. Line by Line
Using a sheet of paper, piece of card stock or wooden rule, cover all the text except for the line you are reading. Do this to review each line in order, without any distractions. This method will also help you pay more attention to typesetting issues like widows and orphans, that detract from the finished document.

8. Read Aloud
As you proofread each word, read it out loud or, alternatively, read it out loud after you have read it silently, red pen in hand. Speak the words slowly and carefully, including the punctuation marks using the proper intonation when you read. This technique will help you spot faulty sentence construction, grammatical errors and incorrect punctuation. Concentrate on reading one word at a time and ask yourself “Is this the right word?”. This will be good practice for when you read in front of audiences. You are welcome.

9. Read with Doubt
Work on the assumption that every word is wrong. Be suspicious. This technique helps you to read word-by-word and not be distracted by the meaning of what you are reading.

10. Forwards and Backwards
This is it – the professional proofreaders’ dirty little secret that is so effective. When you reach the end of a piece of text you have just read forwards, repeat the reading process, only this time in reverse. It will be a very rare occurrence if a typo escapes you on the second pass. Reading backwards means that each word is now abstracted from the regular reading flow.

“Read your paper backward, sentence by sentence, as a final proofreading step. This technique isolates each sentence and makes it easier to spot errors you may have overlooked in previous readings.” – Claire B. May Gordon S. May

11. Check and Double-Check
Make sure you check and double-check the capitalization and spelling of proper nouns. Check with at least two dictionaries – print or online, I would recommend one of each – for the correct spelling and correct part of speech. Keep a list of proper names, places and dates that have already been checked so you do not need to repeat each time you proofread. Make sure you total any numbers, calculations or equations to make sure they are accurate. Ensure any graphics are correctly oriented and the captions match the images.

The Haunted Pen - Proofread Like A Pro12. Tenses
Take some time to review consistent use of verb tenses, variety in verb choices, and use of the active voice by removing verbs ending with -ing.

13. Page Furniture
There is a tendency to skip over titles, headings, headers, footers, footnotes and other annotations for spelling and style/format errors and get to the “real” reading. Believe me, major typos can and do occur in headings and titles, including books. Your face will go a beautiful shade of red if a mistake appears in the title of your document or, even worse, in a boldface heading.

14. Mark Up Changes
Ensure your reading marks are easy to spot so you do not overlook them at the correction stage. Punctuation marks – commas, apostrophes, full-stops/periods, etc. – are fairly easy to miss. I prefer to circle the correction and put an asterisk in the margin next to the line it is marked on.

15. Special Consideration
Longer works like short stories, novellas and novels have special considerations when it comes to proofreading. You may need to complete multiple selective read-throughs and outlines. Authors and book editors often keep separate document files that contain vital information such as a character’s proper name, dates, timelines and any supporting research to help avoid making continuity and logic mistakes.

16. Take a Break
No explanation needed. Take one. Rest your eyes. Take a walk. Grab a soda. Just do something that is not involved with your work.

17. Highlights
Okay. We have now finished working on paper and have moved back to the keyboard. As you work on fixing the errors indicated on your marked-up manuscript, use a highlighter pen to indicate you have fixed it. Wherever possible, do all corrections in one sitting. Now is the time to be ultra-careful. The last thing you want is to introduce new errors. Pay attention to any areas that have been reworked. If a significant portion has been rewritten, print it out and proof it again. When you have finished making your changes, go over your printout to make sure you have not missed anything.

18. Overkill
Have you used a word or phrase too many times? Copy that does this can come across to the reader as the work of an amateur. Use the “Search” or “Find” feature of your word-processing software to locate a particular word and replace it with another similar term.

19. One More Time
Finished? Good. Fooled you. Now take one last look through your work and make sure all the end punctuation is included, questions end with a question mark, and pieces of dialogue begin and end with quote marks. Also, run the spellchecker over your corrected post and read it on-screen to make sure it looks good.

20. Publish!

“Self-publishing is not as easy as it is portrayed! When you think you have finished your book, proof read, proof read again, and again, and again. Don’t believe it is ready until you have a hard copy proofed!” – Phil Simpkin

Now that you have finished proofreading, get back to your writing!

The Haunted Pen - Proofread Like A Pro

23 thoughts on “20 Tips to Proofread Like A Professional

  1. FZ 2 says:

    Dave, your tips are great, and I’d echo the wisdom of many, but for one thing – most professional proofreaders use Track Changes these days. No, it’s not some app like grammarly – the proofreader reads every word, just like you did, but makes the changes online. This hard copy method is outdated, apart from with a very few traditional publishers and non-fiction books.

    My sister is a professional proofreader (in that it is her business, her living), who has clients from the Big 5 published, to publishers themselves, to indies and self-pub. She has never, ever been asked to do hard copy proofreading. She sends two copies back to the client – one the clean corrected copy, and the other showing all changes. Track Changes enables the client to accept or reject each change. My sister does every book twice, as you recommend, and only works for burst of one and a half hours at a time, to make sure her eyes are fresh!


    • Dave Burnham says:

      Thank you. Track Changes is a valid proofreading tool. In my experience, I find more on paper than I do on screen. I know a couple of editors/proofreaders who mark up a hard copy and then repeat the amendments in Track Changes. Thank you so much for your comment.


  2. vanderso says:

    I want to echo your advice to read in hard copy. Not only will you spot errors you miss on screen (track changes be darned), you will see your work in a different light. Something changes in your head when you hold a sheet of paper in your hand. I can’t explain this, but I know it’s true for me. Great list!


    • Dave Burnham says:

      Thank you so much for the kind words. I was trained to edit/proofread on hard copies many years ago by a seasoned and well-respected editor/journalist and his methods have always served me well. I have edited several novellas for another author using Track Changes and have never felt as comfortable working that way.


  3. vanderso says:

    Reblogged this on Just Can't Help Writing and commented:
    A great list that gives you a process for proofreading—and I can attest that these steps work for me. I especially want to echo Dave’s advice to read in hard copy. Not only will you spot errors you miss on screen (track changes be darned), you will see your work in a different light. Something changes in your head when you hold a sheet of paper and a pen in your hand. I can’t explain this, but I know it’s true for me.

    When you’re done with this process, run your manuscript through my “Things You WILL Miss When You Proofread” posts. They’ll help you catch those little things your eyes will still miss but your computer won’t.


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