Wednesday, 5 January 2011

How to proofread for zero defects

Over the Christmas break I was asked about how to improve attention to detail and proofread work so that it is error-free. It’s an interesting question and one I have given much thought to over the years.

So, on something of a tangential note for the New Year, here are my tips for proofreading and zero defect copy:
  1. Allow time between finishing the work and proofreading. Ideally this would be several days or at least overnight, but even an hour or two will help. Allowing the brain to focus on other things allows you to come back to your work with a more detached view.
  2. Read the document several times to check for different things, eg whether it makes sense, whether it flows nicely, whether it is factually accurate, whether there are any misleading sentences, etc. Proofreading is not the same as reading through your work. We often mix up proofreading with these other activities, trying to do too many things in one reading. Separate them out to improve accuracy.
  3. Use an eye-guide such as a ruler, your finger or the cursor to check each sentence slowly and methodically. Because we are capable of reading quickly, we do. But proofreading requires us to slow down and purposefully read each word. The physical act of moving a ruler or a finger helps.
  4. Change the look of the document. Word processors enable us to very quickly change things such as the margins, font or pagination to get a different view of the text. Make the text larger to see if errors are easier to spot.
  5. Use the spell checker. This is standard in most word processors but some software requires it to be switched on. Never release a document without spell checking it.
  6. Read your work aloud. This has two benefits; firstly you “hear” errors more clearly aloud than when you are reading to yourself. Secondly, it slows down the process, also making errors easier to find.
  7. Always go back and re-check your work after you make a change. Many mistakes slip through because of last-minute changes that alter the sense or structure of a sentence. If you make a change, carefully re-check that section.
  8. Ask someone else to read your work. No book publisher would ever allow a book to be printed without several people carefully checking it. Someone else will more easily spot awkward sentences, sentences that make no sense, spellos, typos and other gremlins. Even better if you know someone who is a stickler for grammar and punctuation.
  9. Concentrate on the proofreading process. Often this “last lap” is done without the attention it deserves. We allow our minds to wander as we work. Proofreading for zero defects is strenuous and requires 100% concentration.
  10. Listen to your inner voice. Often we notice errors even though we don’t do anything about them. Grammatical errors or using the wrong word register with us on a subconscious level; listening to your inner voice at the checking stage often saves a red face later.
  11. Have good references. Using a good dictionary, a good thesaurus and style guide all help in quickly checking the correct word or phrasing.
  12. Create your own checklists. A checklist for things to check, eg grammar, style, readability, clarity, accuracy, completeness, spelling, typos, accuracy of numbers, etc. A checklist for favourite mistakes, eg words you frequently misspell or grammatical errors you make often. Every time a mistake creeps into your work, add it to the checklist so you improve next time.
  13. Create your own style guide. Each industry has its own best practice. Create a style guide that includes common company names, abbreviations used in your industry, etc. Include good examples of other people’s work. Include favourite references such as dictionaries or web sites that are useful. This is another feedback loop that helps improve writing with every piece that is published.
  14. Read your work in different ways. As authors of our work, we start at the beginning and lovingly read through every word. Readers don’t do that. They scan the title, intro and random paragraphs to see if it looks interesting. They miss bits out or skip to the part that is relevant to them. Simulate a reader’s behaviour by reading random sections, or parts you know might be read out of context. Do they make sense? Are they clear and unambiguous? Try reading backwards and focusing on each word rather than the sense.
  15. Proofread from a printout; don’t rely on working from the screen. I know it’s not ecologically sound, but moving away from the computer to a quiet place makes a big difference. You can work slower and more thoughtfully.
  16. Build proofreading time into your schedule. Nothing ruins good work like silly errors that should have been picked up long before they get to the reader. It is tempting to think they don’t matter, but readers subconsciously mistrust error-prone work.
  17. Use a professional service. I have employed a copywriter to check my work for important work and it doesn’t have to be costly. If you have a large or important document, it could be worthwhile.

It’s a long list. And I’ll admit to having made each and every mistake going. Working in the software industry teaches accuracy, even if it doesn’t come easily and is an on-going struggle. But proofreading and producing zero-defect work is a process rather than a talent. Certainly some people have better attention to detail than others, but technology and checklists help.

Does anyone else have any tips or techniques to share? I’m sure there are more and I’d love to hear!

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