This post first ran here on November 29, 2009.
Whatever you write – whether it is a manuscript, an article, a business letter, or advertising copy – will require some level of checking for accuracy before it is ready to be sent out. Different types of documents often have different requirements, for example a manuscript often needs editing in addition to proofreading, while an informal letter may only require a read-through for spelling and grammar errors, and advertisements may even break grammar rules for effect.
If you’re mainly concerned about checking spelling, it can help to read your document backwards, checking one word at a time. This prevents you from skimming as you read and therefore missing errors because your brain is focused on the content.
Break longer words into syllables and check that letters have not been transposed within each syllable. As readers, our brains have been coached into making assumptions to gain speed. Often we see only the first few letters of a word, recognise it, and move on – without attaching any importance to whether the word is spelt correctly.
Keep a dictionary on hand and check any word that you are not completely certain is correct. You’ll probably find that most words start looking wrong to you at this point – think of it as your ego acknowledging that it’s not a Spelling Bee Champion.
Watch out for words that sound the same, e.g. "their" and "there", as these are often mixed up.
Don’t forget to check spellings in your headlines – capitals, bolding, or different font styles make it easy for errors to slip through.
If it helps, make temporary changes to the font style or size that will make it easier for you to check the text. Some people battle to read serif fonts, like Times New Roman, while others prefer these to sans serif fonts, like Arial.
If you need to do a basic grammar and sense check in addition to a spelling check, try reading your document backwards one sentence at a time.
Check common errors such as verb and subject agreement, apostrophe usage and other punctuation errors, and missing words. Even if a particular market or client prefers informal grammar, errors like these will make a document look unprofessional.
Missing or transposed letters can change the meaning of a word – the spelling may be correct (and therefore your PC’s spell-check won’t pick it up) but the word is completely out of context.
If a sentence sounds wrong, listen to your instinct. Invest in a grammar guide so that you can double-check anything you’re unsure of.
Again, avoid second-guessing yourself by looking up any words you don’t know the definite meanings of. Do you really mean “consequently”, or should you have used “subsequently”? Have you used “obliged” when you meant “obligated”? It’s easy to get the incorrect sense of a word, and use it incorrectly for years before finding the real definition.
Have you used the correct form of the word? Many people have fallen into the habit of using an adjective as an adverb, e.g., “You’re driving too slow” instead of “You’re driving too slowly”. (Of course, because this is English after all, if that driver's speed was fast instead of slow, the first sentence would be correct, because “fast” is an adjective and an adverb, and, just for fun, it’s also a noun and a verb.)
It is easy to overlook the spelling of a name when checking a document, especially a popular name, or one with many spelling variations, such as Katherine, Katharine, Kathryn, Catherine.
If you quote more than one person, ensure you’ve attributed each quote to the correct person.
Try to make proofreading a standard part of your work. Factor it into your projects like any other step in the process, include it in your estimation of the time your work will take to complete, and don’t let yourself off until you’ve completed your final check.
Elle Carter Neal is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Visit her website to download her free mini report on the Ten Most Frustrating Grammar Rules and How to Remember Them. Stay and browse through her resources for writers or follow her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog.