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The Proof Is In The Proofing: 7 Tips To Develop Great Proofreading Skills

In many professions, especially writing and internet marketing, the primary form of contact with customers is via the written word: website content, display ads, Spam-compliant emails, not to mention forum posts and even responses to queries, etc.  The list is endless.  And all of them have one thing in common: They are based on the written word.

Because of this, the importance of proofreading one's work, word-for-word, cannot be over-stressed.  No one would think of making a presentation while wearing a shirt covered in grease or spaghetti-sauce stains. Nor, despite a few eccentric exceptions, of appearing at one's wedding in sandals and baggy shorts. Yet that is exactly the same thing as allowing even one 'typo' to appear in the final copy of any professional text.

To avoid these written faux pas, proofreading skills are essential.  Proofreading to writing is the equivalent of house cleaning to home design or laundering to dress-making: While the house may be beautiful, it is nothing more than a fancy pig's sty if not cleaned up; the gown nothing more than a rag, if not treated properly.

But proofreading is not an easy skill to develop, primarily because, for mystical reasons no writer will ever understand but will nonetheless verify (myself included), once a thought has been translated to a page, the author often develops a specialized kind of blindness, one in which they can no longer see what they've written clearly.  Instead, all they see is what they *intended* to say.

But there is hope.  As with any skill, producing letter-perfect copy comes with practice.  Following are seven tactics for effective proofreading.  None of them will guarantee perfect copy.  All of them have their weaknesses.  But if at least two or three are employed on a consistent basis, typographical, punctuation and/or grammatical errors will show a marked decrease.


Upon its release, Spell-check was touted as every writer's dream, allowing those without secretaries (i.e., 98% of us) to forego the tedious chore of proofreading.  To say that it fell somewhat short of that goal is an understatement.  However, it IS useful as a basic, first-run-through tool.  And it does point out the most obvious errors.


"You know, you can just, like, go over to this website and. . . " 

This sentence is an obvious example of one of the most common errors in writing and is hardly ever caught during proofreading.  That is, general improper usage. As anyone learning a foreign language can attest, there is a distinct difference between what is acceptable in the less formal, oral format than its written counterpart.  While writing should be fluid and succinct, it should not mimic spoken -- even well-spoken -- language.  When proofreading, the signs of this type of misuse are: Overly informal slang; lack of reference within the context (i.e., over-using pronouns); and an abundance of typically oral modifiers (but, like, you see, etc.).


While writing, an author so often becomes embroiled in the act itself -- of refining a thought or idea, of showing a progression of that thought -- that he/she loses perspective.  In the process, incomplete sentences may be left hanging, replacement words may be put in the wrong part of a sentence, complete thoughts might be chopped up.  For this reason, it is often easier to see these errors if, no matter what the deadline, the writer takes a break before reading over their copy, then comes back and reads it through from the beginning.  In this way, these type of errors will become glaringly obvious.


Though it's doubtful gremlins really do reside within printers, the fact remains that most 'typo's' can be found more easily in printed form.  And, while it *seems* more efficient to proofread the text first, *then* print it, it actually wastes time.  Perhaps it is because reading for sense and content, reading for typos AND correcting all at once can be a matter of covering too many bases.  Whatever the case, printing a copy makes proofreading much easier.


There is an old proofreading saying that "a fresh pair of eyes make all the difference."  This is because after repeatedly looking at the same copy, the brain actually stops processing the information.  By asking someone else to look over the same copy, the "fresh pair of eyes" can find the otherwise elusive typo.  Co-workers, friends, and relatives can be the best help in this case.  For long documents or a complete website, an alternate suggestion is to hire a professional proofreader.


While it may seem to contradict the advice in #2, above, reading the text aloud often forces one to recognize a typo or grammatical error the eyes have scanned over and missed a dozen times.  This goes to the core of why proofreading is so difficult: Simply put, the mind naturally adapts to what it sees very quickly.  If one sees the same error repeatedly, without it being corrected, it ceases to recognize it as such.  Thus, in proofreading, our own capabilities betray us. Professional proofreaders (yes, there is such a profession, though now only associated with the law and publishing fields) use a technique in which one proofreader will read aloud, while another proofreader (using a second copy) follows along, making corrections.  This is an extreme measure, but worthwhile for any text that must be absolutely letter-perfect.


Especially in the case of a substantial body of work (a website, for instance), an open invitation for correction should be given.  Though, again, it seems contradictory to what has already been said here (in #5, above), inviting the corrections of the world at large allows for a greater source of information.  And, of course, this is only after all other efforts have been made.  Even with two or three people viewing the text, a broader forum of information can always pick out one or two straggling typo's.

Using even one or two of these tips will enhance the body of any author's work, allowing them to enjoy a professionalism they would otherwise be denied.  Think of it as buying a new suit and tie, then dry-cleaning them regularly.--mo


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