Tips on proofreading your work
Published: October 27, 2004
|Editors are right: A "clean" manuscript counts. At their best, typographical errors are a sign of thoughtlessness; at their worst, they indicate ignorance--two qualities you do not want to present to your reader. The best words and finest thoughts pass unnoticed when surrounded by typos and sloppiness.|
Whether you are preparing a manuscript, term paper, business report or birthday note, you want your fine words to be free of mistakes and errors.
There is no Richter Scale of proofreading errors. All errors are important: "Its Santa Claus" and "Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1942" are equally grievous.
Behind a clean manuscript is a professional who respects the craft and business of writing. You want to put your reader in a good mood. However, that mood tends to sour at the sight of a proofreading error. Your manuscript reads "paralel," a simple mistake. You know you can spell "parallel," but does your reader know that? He or she will think, is it just a typo? What else is wrong? Maybe the facts and statements are wrong, too.
Proofreading is an acquired skill that demands patience, practice, perseverance and a few tips.
Know what you don't know
Although I have been writing and editing professionally for more than 15 years, I still check the definitions of "affect" and "effect." I have been known to stumble over "its" and "it's." The various forms of "occur" and "recommend" have been messing with me since grade school. As with the formula for changing Fahrenheit degrees to Celsius or naming all Seven Dwarfs, there are some facts, spellings and meanings I have given up trying to remember. However, I know where the blank spots are in my memory and when to fill them in.
Have respect for your ignorance. Your dictionary should be as worn as your phone book.
A healthy mind in a healthy body
Proofread when you are alert, relaxed and free from distractions, both mental and physical. Concentration is not an easy discipline to learn.
Follow the advice given in a 17th-century German proofreading manual: "The proofreader should scrupulously avoid giving himself over to choler, to love, to sadness, or indeed yielding to any of the lively emotions."
Take breaks. You are the only one in this competition. Be neat. According to a 1949 proofreading manual: "The hanging up of any hats and coats on the walls of the proofroom should not be permitted, as it reflects a condition of slovenly lives."
The dull mechanics
The average reader recognizes at least 2,000 words as entities: an, and, play, ground, explain, etc. You are not the average reader. Coordinate your mental attention on the separate letters as you visually concentrate on the entire word. See the forest and the trees.
Do not read your manuscript for pleasure. Exult over your choice words and well-turned phrases later at your leisure.
Use extra caution at the beginning and end of your proofreading session. Because you are eager to start and quick to finish, you may miss something.
Don't skip anything. Read your name and address as if you have never seen them before.
Typos are elusive in copy that is all capitals.
Groups of thin letters--"ili," "ifi," "til"--are traps waiting to spring.
I know I don't have to tell you about the pitfalls of plurals: mothers-in-law, scarf/scarves, sundry/sundries (but attorney/attorneys).
Post a special watch on dates and dollar amounts. An error of a missed figure or misplaced decimal point can range from embarrassing to disastrous.
Many errors occur at the end or beginning of a typed line. A word may be dropped or repeat itself. Mistakes are prone to occur in the middle of long words.
The hardest typos to recognize are the right words in the wrong places: the marital arts, the calvary saved the day, the climatic scene, etc.
Like thorns on roses, errors often come close together. If you find one, look hard nearby for others.
Don't get caught by that old hobgoblin, "If it looks right, it must be right."
Talk to yourself
Read your manuscript aloud; you may find some typos that were missed during silent readings. Also, if your voice stumbles or you need to catch your breath between sentences, your word and sentence flow may need some rewriting.
A friend in need
Here's an opportunity to test a friendship. Ask a friend to read the manuscript aloud as you follow along with the original copy.
The reader should also announce punctuation. Use verbal shorthand: cap for capital, com for comma, pare for paragraph, open/close [quotes], etc. Words with tricky or variant spellings should be spelled out loud.
Follow the advice given to monks in a medieval French monastery: "Here let the scribes beware of making mistakes through haste. ... And let not him who reads the words to them either read falsely or pause suddenly."
Birds of a feather
Watch for punctuation marks that come in pairs: quotation marks, parentheses and brackets, as well as nonrestrictive phrases and clauses set off by commas. If you see one, find the other one.
Your last chance
Proofing is your final opportunity to double-check for grammar and consistency: Does the sentence have a subject? Does the clause need commas? Do you underline or use quotation marks? Do subject and verb agree? Are the paragraphs and pages in the order you planned? Are margins and tabs, capitalization and spellings consistent? Pages in sequence? Right caption, right photo? Charts and tables and lists marked clearly? Footnotes numbered correctly?
Spell-checkers: dumb as doornails
Computer spell-checking programs are fair-weather friends. They approve "though" when you wanted" "through." They skip over phrases such as "No dumping aloud."
I have a spelling checker,
It came with my PC.
It plainly marks four my revue
Mistakes I cannot sea.
I've run this poem write through it,
I'm sure your pleas too no
It's letter perfect in it's weigh,
My checker toiled me sew.
(Source: The New York Times, Oct. 9, 1995)
When you are making corrections on a computer, double-check that the screen has followed your instructions. Also, when making a change, look before and after, making sure you have not made a new error when correcting an old one.
When it's perfect
After you are positive that your manuscript is squeaky clean, put it down and go on to something else. Go back to it in a few days and repeat the process. You may be surprised at what you find.
It is not often that a "top 10" list commemorates the bloopers of a profession. But this list does. Professional proofreaders find these errors most common. You can expect them to be on your list, too.
• Letters omitted
• Space omitted
• Punctuation mark omitted
• Word omitted
• Small letter for capital
• Full line omitted
• Spelling error
• Capital for small letter
(Source: STET! Tricks of the Trade for Writers and Editors, edited by Bruce O. Boston)
The inner voice
With time and experience, you will develop some new brain cells that tell you, "There's something wrong here. I don't know what, but I better find it." You will catch yourself proofing billboards and magazines, gloating over headline mistakes such as "Basketball without Michael Jordan is like ballet without the diva" or "New efforts made to treat chronicle fatigue syndrome."
National Geographic uses team proofreaders, who proof each four times. The editors expect 100 percent accuracy. So should you.
Don't believe it!
I read somewhere once that a writer is allowed up to three neatly handwritten corrections per page before an editor pulls out a rejection slip.
--Posted Oct. 27, 2004