Devil’s in the details: 7 tips to proofread with precision

Devil’s in the details: 7 tips to proofread with precision

You’ve planned out a blog post, a report, a press release – heck, an email. You’ve written it with flair and vigour. You’ve edited it for clarity, concision and other important words beginning with C.

Your document reads like a stroll along a garden path. Now it’s time to proofread it – lest your reader trip on a wayward comma.

Spotting a spelling error is simple enough, but there’s more to proofreading than scanning for squiggly red lines. That’s true for all writing – including business writing.

A clean, polished document shows care, poise and attention to detail. It screams ‘professional’.

And with a degree in professional writing and editing, I’ve picked up a few tips for nailing this all-important final edit.

Here’s how to proofread with precision.

The principles of good proofreading

Proofreading is slow, miserable, painstaking work. If you’re not running a low-grade fever by the end of a document, you haven’t done it right.

Just kidding.

Proofreading can be satisfying and even fun – like an Easter egg hunt, but for hyphens and dangling modifiers. It can also feel intimidating, especially if you’re proofreading a lengthy document.

To simplify the task, here are a few guiding principles of good proofreading.

  • Proofreading is about quality control. It’s not the time to flex your creative muscles and suggest a dramatic rewording of an already-adequate sentence. It’s time to zero in on the writing, word by word, and make sure everything is in place.

  • Proofreading is not like reading for pleasure. Rather than sitting back and drinking in the words, you’re leaning in – taking a magnifying glass to the page. It’s less demanding than writing. But it takes focus.

  • Your job is to check first – and amend second. Proofreading is more fun when there’s a lot to change. A comma here, a hyphen there – that’s what proofreading is, right? Actually, you only need to check for errors. If you’re on the final line and haven’t found a thing to change, congrats! You’ve still done your job.

With those in mind, let’s dig into 7 tips you can apply next time you’re combing through a document like a pigeon at a sausage sizzle.

1. Change the look and feel

If you have to proofread your own work, the best thing you can do is get some distance from it. Take an hour, a day, a week – as long as you can – and return with fresh eyes.

But that’s not always an option. Another way to make your writing feel like new is to move it into a different platform.

If you’ve been writing in Word, chuck your copy in a Google Doc. If your company has a WordPress account, upload it as a draft and read it like a published article.

Alternatively, keep it in Word but change the font size or colour. You’d be surprised at how effective it is.

You can also go analogue and print out your handiwork. Paper can make your writing feel like it was written by a stranger, and it will give your tired eyes a rest.

Mark up the document with a quality red pen – just remember to edit the digital version, too.

2. Read it aloud

Just like changing the visual experience of your document, hearing the words can offer you a new perspective. (This is a handy tip at other stages of the writing process, as well.)

You can throw on a pair of headphones and use Microsoft Word’s Read Aloud feature (you’ll find it under the Review tab) or you can read the words aloud yourself.

Both will help you catch errors and clunky constructions. But only the latter will annoy your coworkers if you’re in a shared space.

Best to opt for the headphones or find a quiet spot first.

3. Go slow

Proofreading is not a race. We can’t scan a document in the same way we scan a webpage and expect to catch every error.

So if you want to proofread with precision? Slow. right. down.

If you haven’t seen the document before, skim it quickly from beginning to end. That’ll give you an idea of how much time to set aside.

For reference, it takes me about 20 to 25 minutes to proofread a 1,500-word article. Give yourself time – and relish not having to write for a little while.

4. Know your workplace’s style guide (and preferred dictionary)

A style guide is a document that lays out an organisation’s preferred spelling, punctuation and formatting choices. All your external writing should adhere tightly to it.

Not every workplace has one, but if yours does, keep it handy as you’re proofreading. It can clarify how you should format bulleted lists, treat semicolons, use dashes, and all sorts of fun stuff. (Also, we’ve got a free style guide if you’re interested.)

If your workplace prefers a certain dictionary (we use the Macquarie), have that nearby, too. Use that dictionary – and only that dictionary – to check the spelling of any word that gives you trouble.

5. Turn on your formatting symbols

Recognise this ¶? It’s called a pilcrow, and it’s a symbol that signposts a new paragraph.

It’s also a feature in Microsoft Word that reveals spaces, tabs, line breaks and other invisible elements. (My old editing teacher calls them ‘her invisibles’.)

A doubled-up space or misplaced line break is just as important to catch and correct as a missing full stop. So before you get stuck in – assuming you’re working in Word – flick them on.

They’re a bit ugly, bless them, but they sure come in handy.

6. Note recurring errors as you go

Let’s say you’re proofreading a report. You notice that the writer – maybe it was you – starts referring to an academic as ‘Mum’ midway through the document.

You can change every individual slip-up back to the correct name as you go. Or you can scribble down the error in a notepad and truck onwards.

Then after you’ve finished, use Word’s Find and Replace feature to extricate Mum from the document in one fell swoop.

The same goes for repeated spelling errors, misused words and style deviations. Simple.

7. Listen to your gut

Proofreading can be surprisingly complex. The deeper you dive into syntax, grammar, punctuation and style, the more your head will spin.

Luckily, you don’t need an English-language degree to proofread well.

Much of grammar and punctuation is instinctive. We usually know when a sentence isn’t working – it’s spotting where it fell apart that’s the challenge.

As you’re proofreading, tune into your gut. If you aren’t sure about something, check it. Consult the dictionary, Google, your style guide, your friend who loves crosswords.

But as a rule of thumb, if you can’t find the answer to something in a few minutes, keep moving. If the sentence is legible, it’s okay if it’s not punctuated within an inch of its life.

8. Bonus tip: Get friendly with the Style Manual

There’s one more authority you can turn to while proofreading: the Australian Government Style Manual.

If you didn’t know, this is the Australian Government’s free and public resource for government writing rules. It breaks down complex wordy issues: like how to treat possessive apostrophes on words ending with S, and when to join two words with a hyphen.

It’s prescriptive, but if you don’t work in government, it’s more of a cheat sheet than a rule book. And it’s a goldmine for proofreaders.

Feeling a little more confident? Proofreading is a skill like any other – and it’s one that’s worth practising.

To give yourself an edge, check out our proofreading checklist in our Content Lab! It’s the ultimate proofing companion for busy professionals – and it’s free.