Writing for Business

by Steve Roche

How to proofread

Yesterday Mr Hall wrote that the printer's proof-reader was improving my punctuation for me, and I telegraphed orders to have him shot without giving him time to pray.

Mark Twain, 1889

Before you begin proofreading a document, print it out. It is often much easier to spot mistakes on the printed page than it is on a computer screen so if possible, print out your document and make the corrections manually.

Scan the document first

Read your document slowly - about three times slower than you read for pleasure. Consider the spelling of every word. Look at every punctuation mark and ask yourself whether it should be used there. Make sure there is subject-verb agreement. Notice capitalisation. Look at every number and question whether it should be spelled out or written in numerical form.

Separate what you look for in each round of reading: for example, first look for misspelt words, then for numbers and symbols, and then for other error types. Remember to check indents, line breaks, spacing and the ‘running heads and feet’ (the name given to the document’s headers and footers).

Tip

Proofread a document more than once. You will most likely find a surprising number of errors the second and even third time you read through a document.

If you find something confusing, make a note of it and write a query to the author. If you are proofreading your own writing, make a note of the confusing section and continue reading.

Read the document aloud

You should read your document aloud. Your ears will hear mistakes that your eyes may miss. Say every word aloud, pause at each comma and emphasise each number.

Place a ruler beneath the printed text you are reading. Move the ruler down, line by line, as you read.

Circle errors and anything that sounds awkward on the printed page so you can make the revisions later. Pay attention for passages that contain repetitive phrasing or which might be unclear.

Read the document backwards

Start at the end of the document and read each word. This will force you to analyse each word individually rather than in the context of the words around it. It will be easier to spot spelling mistakes and sentence fragments reading the document this way.

Tip

To spot the typographical mistakes read the document backwards, so you're not distracted by the meaning of the text.

Electronic proofreading

If you are using word processing programmes like Microsoft Word or Pages, turn on the track changes feature. In Open Office, use the record changes feature. The track (or record) changes feature records every edit you make to the text, formatting, and spacing of the document. It also registers who makes changes to the document.

Use the show formatting feature. When it is enabled, it shows paragraph symbols, spacing, symbols, and line breaks which makes it much easier to spot double spaces in the text or incorrect line breaks.

Tip

Spell out numbers from zero to ten and then use numerals for 11 and over.

If you spot something that doesn’t make sense, insert a comment for the author to read or as a visual reminder to yourself if it is your own work.

Editing PDF documents

If you use Acrobat Reader, you can insert comments (using a sticky note feature), and add, delete or highlight text. When I edited a magazine, I proofread the text in PDF format and used sticky notes to show the typesetter where words or letters needed to be inserted or deleted. (It was a lot faster and more efficient than our previous method: reading out the changes over the telephone!)

Questions and tips

What is the difference between proofreading and copyediting?

In publishing, a copy editor analyses, processes and transforms copy into intelligible, easy-to-understand prose. The document is then sent to a typesetter and then to a proofreader. The proofreader checks the written text after it has been edited and typeset but before it has been printed or published, providing a final quality check to make sure that nothing has been missed by the copy editor.

The proofreader’s changes are sent to the typesetter. Once they are made, the proofreader checks the revised copy and the process continues until the copy is signed off as ready to be printed and bound.

How can I improve my proofreading skills?

Practise proofreading as often as you can. There are plenty of free proofreading exercises on the internet. Don’t be put off by low scores when you first try the tests. You will improve.

Do what you can to improve your knowledge of grammar. There are lots of free grammar exercises online.

How can I proofread my own writing?

It is not easy to proofread your own writing so if at all possible, ask a colleague to do it for you and offer to proofread their work in return. If that is not possible, take a break between finishing the writing and proofreading. Put your writing aside for at least an hour and do something else. Return to it with fresh eyes. Print out what you’ve written. Read it aloud.

My word processing programme has a spelling and grammar checker. Isn’t that enough?

Not really. A spelling checker won't catch mistakes with homonyms (for example, they're, their and there) or certain typographical mistakes (like he for the). It may also make suggestions for your text that are incorrect (for example, it may suggest you replace its with it’s even though it is correct).

What are proofreading symbols?

Proofreaders use a set of standardised symbols to indicate the changes they want the typesetter to make to the copy before it goes to the printer. The symbols most widely used are those defined by the British Standards Institute.

The symbols are used on a ‘hard’ (printed) copy of a document. When proofreaders and copyeditors want a change to be made in a document, they make a mark in the margin, along with specific details about the change that should be made, and place a mark in the text showing where that instruction should be made.

For example, a proofreader might have crossed out a word, to indicate to the typesetter it should be deleted, but then decided the word should be left in the text. He or she would let the typesetter know that the crossing out should be ignored by placing a tick inside a circle in the margin and drawing a dotted line underneath the crossed out word in the text.

If you don’t know how to use proofreading symbols, you can simply put a circle around the text that needs to be altered and put instructions in the margin detailing what should be done.

Proofreading tips

  • Work from a printout rather than your computer screen
  • It is much easier to spot mistakes on the printed page than it is to see them on a computer screen.
  • Read the document aloud
  • You will hear the mistakes when you read the text aloud.
  • Use a piece of paper or card to cover up the lines below the one you’re reading
  • This will help to prevent you skipping over possible mistakes.
  • Check the text separately for different types of mistakes
  • Read the document first to check that it makes sense. Read it again to check for sentence fragments, or spelling or grammatical mistakes.