How to Effectively Proofread Your Own Work
How to Effectively Proofread Your Own Work
Proofreading might seem like an easy task compared to writing, but it requires just as much care and attention, if not more. Whether you’re editing a full-length novel or scanning for mistakes in an email, a thorough proof means picking out all the errors and poorly written sentences you’ve grown accustomed to ignoring — a taller order than you might imagine.
The good news is that there are plenty of strategies you can try to proofread your writing more effectively. Some are better for proofing long-form works, while others are ideal for shorter works and even brief messages (emails, social media comments, etc.). But no matter what you write, these tips will help ensure you never submit or publish an error-riddled piece again! We’ll start with a fairly universal technique…
Give yourself some space
The best way to gain perspective in any situation, writing-related or otherwise, is to take some space from it. Proofreading in particular requires a fresh outlook because it’s important that you notice every last problem, down to the tiniest typo — which your eyes will naturally skip over if you’ve spent too much time on the page.
The longer you’ve spent writing a piece, the more mental space you should take before proofing it. If it’s a single-sentence comment, a brief glance away from the screen should suffice. For an important email, try clicking over to another tab to work on something else for a few minutes, then returning to proof what you’ve written. When it comes to articles and essays, I usually take a couple of hours to reset my brain, or a day if time isn’t a restricting factor. And if you happen to be proofing a whole book, you’ll want to wait at least a week, ideally more — and remember to take additional breaks in between chapters!
This might be a tough ask for people who like to write fast, proof their work immediately, and wash their hands of it. But trust me: even taking a short break from this particular piece — whether that’s switching gears by working on something else, or shutting down your laptop to go for a walk — will help you identify many more errors than you would have otherwise.
Strive for clarity as well as correctness
Though most people associate proofreading with spelling, grammar, and punctuation, you’ll also want to consider clarity. When proofreading my own work, I’ll often come across sentences or phrases that, while technically correct in isolation, sound confusing in context. Take the following sentence you might find in a work email:
“I spoke with Mark yesterday about Jerry’s presentation. He said he should be ready to give it by Thursday.”
Neither of these sentences is grammatically incorrect, but the first use of “he” muddles the meaning — who said when the presentation would be ready, Mark or Jerry? A quick rewrite eliminates this ambiguity:
“I spoke with Mark yesterday. He said Jerry should be ready to give the presentation by Thursday.”
Other times I’ll read back a sentence and find that the message simply hasn’t come through as intended. In this case, the culprit is often poor word choice; either a stronger, more specific word is needed, or I’ve used the wrong word/phrase entirely. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve mixed up similar idioms, even combining them in totally nonsensical ways!)
If you’ve tried fixing vague or imprecise phrasing, but something still just doesn’t sound right, consider deleting the sentence altogether and starting over. You may even find you don’t need that sentence at all — in which case, feel free to leave it out.
Read the piece out loud
Another way you can identify what’s “off” about your writing is by reading it out loud. Like my first tip, this one might seem basic, but it can make a huge difference in terms of what you perceive on the page.
The “reading aloud” stage is where I typically uncover poor phrasing, superfluous words, and passive rather than active voice. Reading a sentence out loud will instantly reveal whether there are too many prepositions (“I was sitting in class with my notes on my desk when I thought of…” etc.) or too many words in general (for example, “get rid of” could become remove, extinguish, abolish, etc.). Passive voice can also be seen and adjusted by someone reading aloud — or rather, the reader can see and adjust any passive voice.
As for actual errors, reading out loud is by far the best way to weed out the dreaded “double mentions” where you accidentally type the same word twice. (“The the” is my most common pitfall — alarmingly, spell check usually doesn’t catch it.) This technique is also helpful when it comes to fixing subject/verb disagreement and poor punctuation, as these issues often don’t register until they disrupt the natural flow of your speech.
Of course, you won’t be able to read everything aloud, especially longer pieces you don’t have time to get through. But if you’re feeling uncertain about a short email or specific passage, it can’t hurt to see what it sounds like to your ears, not just inside your brain.
Work from a proofing checklist
Scared you’re going to miss something while proofreading? Consider creating a checklist or mini style guide for reference. This should remind you to check for errors you’d otherwise forget — and in case you do forget anything in the first round of proofing, you can consult the checklist afterward to be 100% sure.
Your proofing checklist can be as simple or elaborate as you need it to be; you can even have separate checklists for different forms of writing. When writing emails and other brief messages, for instance, you’ll want to be direct and concise. So that checklist might look like this:
● No passive voice
● No filler words (like “really” and “just”)
● No sentences longer than 20 words
But for a longer piece, you’d likely be more lenient with these elements, while also introducing more nuanced considerations for long-form writing. The key thing is to include whatever problems crop up most for you, in whatever medium you tend to write!
One more example: over on the Reedsy blog, we use American spellings for our primarily American audience, but some of our writers are actually British. So when we proof posts for the blog, we have to change the British spellings to the American ones. Needless to say, this can be a challenge — which is why it’s so useful to have a go-to style guide as a reminder.
Avoid proofing fatigue
Finally, if you’re proofing a lengthy piece — or having to proof the same piece multiple times — make sure to avoid proofing fatigue! If you feel your eyes getting tired or your nerves wearing thin, return to that first tip and take a break. Unless you’re literally about to miss a deadline, it’s better to submit something a bit later than to submit it full of typos and missing punctuation.
Indeed, most mistakes happen when you’re rushing to get something done, so don’t let yourself fall into this trap. Stay calm and focused, read carefully (aloud if needed), and always remember to check for your most frequent mistakes. Effective proofreading may not be easy, but it doesn’t have to be impossible; keep all these tips in mind, and you and your work should be just fine.
“Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. As one of the Reedsy blog editors, she spends a great deal of time editing and proofreading posts, and she’s always happy to share what she’s learned. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories.”
You can reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org