Top tips for proofreading like a pro

06 May 2021
By Hazel M., Freelance writer, journalist and total bookworm at Unite Students

Submitting an article or a piece of work that you know will be publicly available can be intimidating, especially if you’re worried about hidden errors or word swaps.

We’ve all been there; sharing something we’ve written online with our friends, only to find out five minutes later that we’ve made a typo in the first line.

The thing is, it’s hard to proofread your own work. Very often, your brain will correct what you’re seeing in front of you before you’ve even had a chance to pick up that it’s a mistake.

That’s because the human mind doesn’t actually read each letter individually, but rather as a whole. It’s even said that, as long as the first and last letters are in the right place, you’d sitll be albe to raed the wrod, no matter how the middle of it was spelt.

And that makes it even harder to spot those pesky typos. Annoying, right?

The good news is, there are some ways you can minimise how often these mistakes happen. So, let’s get started.

1) Know the difference

Before we do anything, I’d like to start by marking the clear difference between proofreading and editing. Largely, because it can become easy to think we’ve done our proofreading after going through our work and re-writing it.

But we haven’t.

When you edit something, you tend to look at the sentence structures, word combinations and how the piece actually reads. It’s something that, if you did it pretty well the first time, might not actually take that long.

However, proofreading is all about accuracy. It’s not something you can do in five minutes, it’s tiring and, sometimes, mind-numbingly boring, but it’s also essential. Don’t try to do these things both together, because your mind can only focus and do one thing really well at a time.

2) Give yourself space

The first thing I always do after writing an article is take some breathing space from it. Generally, I’ll finish my edits and rewrites, then go and make a cup of tea, sit down for ten or twenty minutes and think about something completely different.

If I’ve got time on my hands, I might even watch a bit of a programme or catch up with a friend on the phone. Anything to switch my brain off from what I’ve just been working on.

Then, when I come back, I’ve got a clear mind, ready to painstakingly scour through every line of my work for typos and grammatical errors.

3) Don’t leave it till the last minute

If you’ve got a knack for leaving things till the last minute, and usually end up checking your work at 1am (when your brain is already fried), it’s time to change things up.

Knowing you’re under pressure to get something done by a short deadline only makes you rush and that’s the most dangerous time for missing those little mistakes.

Make sure you’re giving yourself plenty of time to work through changes, and don’t rely on the adrenaline of a deadline to help you make it through.

4) Use a method

Sometimes, proofreading is all about choosing the right method, and there are a number of things you can do.

For some, it means using a ruler or blank piece of paper under each line of copy so that you are only focusing on that one line at a time (you can try doing this on-screen, but I imagine most print the document out first).

Others try reading their sentences backwards, forcing themselves to concentrate harder on the words in front of them.

You could even read it aloud to yourself. Essentially, you’ll trip over any of the mistakes in an awkward way that you wouldn’t when reading it in your head.

Either way, having a method like one of the above could be exactly what you need to needle-pick those tiny mistakes.

5) Don’t forget the details

One thing that many people overlook is the small details. I’m talking about everything from headers and subtitles, to suspect grammar and incorrect facts.

For example, did you say ‘millions’ instead of ‘billions’? Or maybe use the wrong name the whole way through the article?

These things can have an even bigger impact on your work than a spelling mistake, particularly if it changes the meaning of the article altogether, so it’s absolutely crucial you’re checking for these things as well.

6) Ask for help

One of the best things you can possibly do when it comes to proofreading is to get a friend to check it for you. Don’t be shy in who you pick, either – they need to know the deal when it comes to spelling and grammar.

If you’ve got a friend who’s studying English or has a way of nit-picking words, get them to have a close look at what you’ve written. A fresh pair of eyes will be far quicker at picking things up than your own, so don’t feel personally criticised by it, either.

7) And finally…

Never rely on spellcheck alone to do the work for you. The method, while it can be useful, isn’t fool-proof and could mean your sentences that don’t actually make sense by the end of it.

Computer spell-checkers can often make errors and suggest words that aren’t actually meaningful to what you’re writing, so proceed with caution.

If you’d like more tips on how to up your writing game for the Common Room, click here.

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When not stringing words together, can usually be found on the local beach with her cocker spaniel pup, Huey.