Proofreading 101

So you’ve written your novel, article, essay, review or whatever else it is you’ve found to write about, and your spellchecker has flagged up all of your glaringly-bad spelling mistakes. You’ve probably got a load blue lines scattered around your document, too, but when you give the blue line closer inspection, it just says something really unhelpful like “fragment; consider reversing”. To be honest, spellcheck – whilst useful – just doesn’t cut it if you want to turn out a well-polished piece of work. It won’t pick up typos where you’ve written “you’re” instead of “your” or “it’s” instead of “its”, and it’ll try to tell you that your sentence is grammatically incorrect (even though it makes perfect sense) because it uses algorithms or something clever-sounding, and takes a guess at what it was you were actually trying to say. The end result can be a 300 page document which – according to your computer – is good to go, but if you read it back, woe is me!

I’m not professing to be an expert or the creator of immaculately-written work, but  I’ve written seven novels, and as I look back on them, I can see a clear evolution in the quality of my work. The first project I worked on… well, the less said about that the better. When I re-read my first, unedited version, there were so many typos that in all honestly, I had a hard time guessing what I’d actually intended to write. I had sit and squint at my work, and after a few minutes, I may have had to concede defeat. As time wore on and my fingers, eyes and brain became more experienced, I found that not only could I understand what I’d written, but other people could, too!

So, here are my top tips for proofreading and editing your work:

1.       Frequently made mistakes

If you’re a prolific writer who spends many hours every day – shunning the sunlight – with your fingers glued to your keyboard, you’ll probably have noticed that there are certain words you always mistype, even though you know perfectly well how to spell them. I’m a pretty fast, touch-typer. My fingers dance quickly over my keyboard with a muscle-memory for each word. It means I can type 10,000-15,000 words a day, but it also means that there are certain words I will almost always mistype, because my fingers have learnt to press the keys in the wrong order. A common one for me is the word “tilted”. At least 75% of the time I mistype it as “titled”. I’m aware of it – I keep an eye out for this kind of thing – and I make a mental note (if you’ve got a bad memory, do write a list) of other words I know I can’t trust my fingers with. Once you’ve finished your piece, go through your work with the “find” function, and address any typos.


2.       The dreaded Your, You’re, There, Their, They’re, Its and It’s

We understand when to use which one, but we often mistype them. I have to be especially mindful of this, because I have a tendency to mistype words that sound the same. When I write, I say each sentence in my mind. I “hear” each word and then my fingers type it out. It’s rare for me to have typos based on semantics, but much more likely for me to have typed a different word which sounds very similar. As a result, spell check doesn’t flag up my mistake. When proofreading my work, I find it helpful to elongate each contracted word, so “you’re” is said in my mind, as “you are” when I read it back. I do the same thing with “They’re – they are” and “it’s – it is”. If what you’re reading doesn’t make sense when the word is no longer contracted, you know you’ve made a typo. I find this the easiest way to stop myself from overlooking an otherwise very common mistake.


3.       Take a break

Don’t try to proofread your work when it’s so fresh in your mind that you can recite it from memory, verbatim. You’ve written your own novel. They’re your characters and your words. They make sense to you and reflect the way your mind would naturally seek to narrate the scene you’re describing. If you’ve just spent weeks or months on your latest project and then go straight into an editing phase, followed immediately by a few proofreads, you will miss things. You’ll be too familiar with your work and your mind will read what it knows you ought to have written. It’s all due to top-down processing. Your brain knows what it should say and overlooks what it actually says. It’s the same phenomenon behind the Stroop Effect and those mildly-amusing viral things that do the rounds from time to time. 

I get around this by writing something completely new, whilst working on the final proofreading stage for my latest completed piece. Working on a new project is a great way to purge your memory of the finer details of the work you’re trying to proofread.


4.       Kindle, Kindle, Kindle!

This little discovery literally changed my life. Proofreading your work on your laptop is great, because you can edit it as you go, but I can read though the same piece countless times and I’ll still find little things that need tweaking. This is where a Kindle (preferably the proper, e-reader kind) makes all the difference. If you email your finished work to your Kindle device, you can read it as though it were an actual eBook. Something about seeing my work in that format, makes it so much easier for me to spot typos and punctuation errors. I can’t stress the usefulness of this enough. If you’ve got a Kindle and you don’t already use the email function to send your documents to it, do it now! Right now!

How to find your Kindle email address: > Manage Kindle and Devices > Your devices (UK customers) > Manage Kindle and Devices > Your devices (US customers)


5.       Be consistent

When you begin your piece, you’ll have to make decisions about how you’re going to write or style certain elements. There’s not a black and white rule for every aspect of writing. Well, there is, but only that you need to Be Consistent.

If, for example, you need to write the time, decide whether you’re going to state the time digitally or in an analogue format; will it be “seven O’clock” or “seven A.M.”? If you’ve decided that certain words need to be capitalised or italicised because they’re names or titles, make sure you follow this rule every time. A quick “find” can flag these for you. For example, if I had chosen to write the time in my novel as “seven A.M.”, I could do a quick "find" to check that every incidence of “A.M.” was preceded by a number as a word, rather than a numerical digit.


6.       Get someone else to read your work

If you’re polishing a piece up for submission, you want it to be free of all those embarrassing errors which make it look as though you’ve not put in any effort. Even if your work is going to be tweaked by an editor after you’ve submitted it, you’ll want to catch as many errors as you can yourself. Because you’re familiar with your own work, it is harder for you to spot your own mistakes (I notice mistakes in books I’ve downloaded far more readily than I do in my own work). It’s also harder for you to spot continuity errors because you understand your plot and characters. A first-time reader will be far more inclined to notice if someone’s name suddenly changes or there’s an illogical change of age or day of the week. Time is something that’s really easy to distort as a writer, but quite visible to a reader. If you can get a family member or friend to read through your work, they can look for typos, sense check, and point out if you’ve got any glaring mistakes or plot hole in your writing. With fiction, I find it useful to get a male, and a female opinion on a piece before I submit it. Men and women think differently and interpret things differently; it’s always great to get feedback from a different perspective.


7.       Again, Again, Again!

And finally, for those who self-publish or don’t have the benefit of a professional editor or proofreader: you can never proofread enough. I’ve gone through one of my novels with what feels like a fine-toothed comb upwards of 10 times, and still, I can find the odd thing here and there. Don’t be afraid to re-read self-published work once you’ve got it online. You can edit it and submit a new version; nothing ever has to be final if you’re the one publishing.