Simple Proofreading Tips

Proofreading can make the difference between a mediocre and dismissed manuscript and a standout book. Skimping on the proofreading can result in a series of embarrassing errors. A few simple steps and a lot of patience can make proofreading pay off in the book printing long run.

Proofreading is not simple or easy. Nor should it be done quickly. Proofreading should be ongoing throughout the entire book process. “I’ll fix that later” is unadvisable when it comes to errors because you may not catch them later. Starting with editing the initial draft and until approving the page proofs—exactly why they are called proofs—proofreading is an integral step in producing a quality book or shorter piece of writing.

While authors must always take responsibility for their own work, hiring a good proofreader is essential because as authors, we know what we have written or intended to write; because the words are in our minds, we may not pay attention to what is actually on the page; we think we know what we put upon the page. Consequently, a close proofread needs to be done, and even after hiring a proofreader, an author should do his or her own proofread of the final book.

Here are some simple tips for making the proofreading process more effective—note I did not say easier or quicker because easy and quick only result in missing errors.

Paper vs. Screen

In the days before computers, everything was proofread on paper. You pulled the piece of paper out of the typewriter, got out your red pen, and went to work. Today, editing is much easier on a computer screen—no more pesky white-out and trying to realign the page with the typewriter keys to retype a word and not have it a half line above the rest of the sentence—if you don’t know what I’m talking about, trust me, you’re lucky to be too young to remember.

Because word processing has made revision much easier, editing is best done on the computer rather than on paper, but proofreading on paper still has a number of loyal followers. I honestly don’t think it matters whether you proofread on paper or on the computer except for the final printing when you want to make sure the book (provided it is printed on paper and not an e-book) is laid out properly on the page and the mechanical and computer process of printing or laying out the pages did not mess something up in the process.

Advantages exist for paper proofreading if your eyes cannot handle the strain of a computer screen for an extended period of time. On paper, individual letters look sharper as do punctuation marks. Even so, your corrections later must be transferred to the computer, so proofreading on paper is more time-consuming.

Proofreading on screen is what I personally prefer so here are a few simple steps to make that process effective:

  1. Font. Please, leave the fancy fonts to the book layout people. There is no reason for a manuscript to be written in different fonts or font sizes. Choose only one easy to read font and size—Times New Roman 12 is standard. Fancier fonts tend to blur letters together or have scripts where some letters are almost beyond recognition. Fancy fonts are sure to give you typo problems simply because they are hard to read.
  2. Use the magnifying glass. Perhaps not literally, unless you’re proofreading on paper, but instead of reading the manuscript at 100% view, increase it so it fills the screen—150 or 200% is advisable. Of course, you don’t want it so large you have to scroll back and forth, but the larger the print on the screen, the easier on your eyes and the more likely you’ll spot the typos.
  3. Turn on the Invisibles. Invisibles are all the spaces you can’t see on the page. Every time you hit the space bar, which is between every word, your computer program will leave a little dot between the words. It will make a little paragraph symbol when you hit “return” to start a new paragraph. The invisibles can make a world of difference. I’ve seen printed books where one paragraph looks like two because no one caught the invisible paragraph break accidentally inserted. People are especially notorious for hitting the space bar after periods multiple times when it should only be hit once. Reading with the invisibles turned on will cure you of the habit, and it will make layout easier and less likely to have issues. Depending on your computer program, invisibles might also be called “hidden text” or “non-print characters.” Go to your word processing program’s “Help” and do a search for these terms to find instructions for turning on the invisible characters. Seeing invisibles on the screen takes some getting used to, but without them, what you can’t see can hurt you.

Read Slowly and Multiple Times

Nothing in proofreading is more important than simply reading slowly. Yes, it can be a tad boring, but an error-free manuscript is worth it. Here are useful tips to help you adjust.

  1. Read Out Loud. I recommend reading out loud during the editing as well—you will be surprised by how you can improve tone and style simply by reading your manuscript out loud—you will catch nuances of rhythm you would not have caught earlier just by listening to yourself. I also believe your brain is forced to concentrate more closely on the page when you read out loud, which means you are more likely to catch errors.
  2. Read backwards. No mirrors required. Don’t switch to reading left to right. Instead, start at the bottom of the page and read each line or sentence forward. That way, you won’t get lulled into the rhythm of the sentences and instead will be forced to see what is on every individual line. This process is time-consuming so you probably won’t stick with it for long, but it is good because it teaches beginning proofreaders to slow down and pay attention.
  3. Look at every word and every letter. Paying close attention to each word and letter is vitally important. Many authors rely too much on spell-check. Spell-check will not catch words that are correctly spelled but in the wrong place. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen the words in the left column below substituted for words in the right column:

    Brain                Brian (I don’t know many people named Brain)

    Lightening         Lightning (there is a difference)

    Dairy                Diary

    Mediate            Meditate

    When proofreading, words with more than one vowel, two of the same letter together such as “occurrence” and “titillate,” or five or more letters really need to have each letter analyzed. As we become adept readers, the brain’s memory quickly recognizes a word simply by glancing at a few of the letters, the result being that we may not see a wrong letter in a word. For exmpl, yu cn prbaby undrstnd th meang of ths sntce evn thogh its misplld.

  • Proofread Multiple Times. Speaking of not catching the wrong word, on my fourth time proofreading this article, I finally caught that I had written “read pen” instead of “red pen.” Enough said.
  • Finally, always get a second opinion. Proofread your work. Then give it to someone else to proofread. Don’t expect the other person to make it perfect and then consider the job done. Look at the mistakes the other person finds and learn from them. If you find you are making a recurring mistake, such as typing “dairy” for “diary,” you’ll learn to break yourself of the habit and watch for it more closely next time you do your own proofreading.

    Proofreading, just like anything, requires practice. The more time you dedicate to it, the better you will be. You may never get into the Proofreading Hall of Fame, but at least, no one will think you can’t spell or write.

    Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.


    1. says

      >>Because word processing has made revision much easier, editing is best done on the computer rather than on paper<<

      After self-publishing a dozen books, I've found that different errors show up in different formats.

      This may not matter for authors who are published by traditional publishers — but for self-pubbers, it's important to proofread on screen in word processing, on screen in PDF, on a paper printout, and in a bound book.

      You can save money and time if you have early proofs made by your local UPS or Fed¬Ex store instead of by your book printer. For inexpensive book-like “bound proofs,” you can use Lulu or CreateSpace.

      At the end, of course, a pro should carefully inspect the work and fix what was missed.

      Michael N. Marcus

    2. says

      “I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen the words in the right column below substituted for words in the right column: ”

      One of these rights should be a left, Irene.

      Useful article.

      Nick Johnson