Proofreading on a budgetPosted: September 18, 2013
I like to think I’m a pretty good proofreader. Assuming I can clearly see the screen or printout–which is more of a challenge as I’ve gotten older–I often find the mistakes that others gloss over. (See the billboard at left; I think I would have caught that one.)
But even with perfect vision, most of us can’t proof our own writing very well. It’s incredibly easy to overlook mistakes if you’re “too close” to the writing. And if you are a good writer, you should get close to your writing!
(Case in point: according to the company responsible for the billboard, the sign passed muster with no less than four other readers. I guess they were having an off day.)
Assuming you have the time and resources to work with a proofreader, that’s your path to error-free writing. Professional proofreaders are worth their weight in gold.
But what’s a conscientious but cash-poor writer to do? Here are some tricks I’ve collected over the years. Some might work better for copy-editing than for proofreading, but hey, it’s all iterative when it comes to writing.
- Turn on the hidden formatting characters of your word processor. These characters show things like paragraph breaks and spaces. You may find them annoying onscreen, but they won’t print on paper or PDF–try it and see. They are there only to help you find those extra spaces or mismatched font sizes.
- Manually double-check the spelling of all proper nouns: people, places and things. Spell-Check tools can learn new words, but sometimes my writing contains words that aren’t in its dictionary yet. If you’re writing something important, such as a job application letter, you’d better know how to spell the employer’s name. If your résumé boasts of your mad PowerPoint expertise, don’t spell it as power point.
- Run readability tests to tone up your copy. I cringe at the idea of a standard algorithm that rewards word or syllable count–completely antithetical to concise business or technical communication. But if you are looking for some independent verification of the complexity of your writing–and you understand the limitations–a readability test can be useful. An interesting one is The Writer’s Diet. It tells you whether your writing is “flabby or fit” in relation to vocabulary, sentence structure, and more. If you’re interested in the old Flesch or Gunning Fog-type tests, try Joe’s Web Tools or Juicy Studio for starters.
- Print your paper & read it one line at a time. Time-consuming? You bet. But sometimes the old ways are the best ways. Taking the time to carefully read your writing can help uncover typos and even problems with tone.
- Read your paper aloud, one line at a time. Why this works I don’t know, but reading my writing aloud always brings problems to the surface.
- Run your paper through an assistive technology product. This one may sound unusual, but don’t knock it until you try it. Assuming you don’t already use assistive technology, check out the built-in screen readers that exist in Word, Acrobat, Apple OS and other products. When my eyes (or brain) tire, I sometimes turn these on. The computerized voices don’t always give you an accurate pronunciation, but they can alert you to obvious errors by reading EXACTLY what is onscreen. In fact, any way to shake up the standard view of your screen can be useful. Browser extensions on Chrome & Firefox provide not only screen readers, but also the ability to switch to reverse type (black background and white text).
- Run Spell-Check any time you make changes (but understand & verify its suggestions). Technology is wonderful, but Spell-Check would not have flagged that billboard’s text as an error. All of the words are standard English. On the other hand, my WordPress spell checker doesn’t like résumé or assistive, which are both in a standard English dictionary as well. Use Spell-Check, but be cautious. Understand the reason it wants to change something, and decide whether or not you agree.
Any other ideas? Please add them in the Comments below.