Updated: Jun 11
That report or resume that you have been working on now for five days straight is finally done, and all that needs doing now is that “once over.” Right? Not so fast. Proofreading is not just a cursory review for spelling mistakes. While the elimination of spelling errors is a key component of the proofreading process, it is but one component of a process. Proper proofreading merits close attention to detail and intense focus. The following proofreading techniques can be easily applied, are easy to remember, and might just take your writing to the next level.
The first line of defense for writers is their writing software’s spellcheck feature. Very few of the errors we find are bona fide spelling mistakes. It is more likely that certain words in your document will be spelled correctly but will not be the appropriate term in a given context. These words are especially difficult to find because your spellchecker will not highlight them. For example:
All together instead of altogether
Accept instead of except
Pubic instead of public (imagine this mishap on your resume!)
Writers should also be wary of these common scenarios:
Commonly confused words (such as your and you’re)
Double letters in words (embarrass, illegible, and committee)
Multiple thin letters within the same word (filling, Illicit, and definite)
Abbreviations (not always recognized by your spellchecker)
Certain text styles that increase the challenges of proofreading (such as block capitals and italics)
Punctuation needs to be not only correct but also consistent. If you use single quotation marks, do not switch to double quotation marks anywhere within the same document. Also, quotation marks come in “pairs,” as do dashes and brackets. Writers commonly, and mistakenly, omit the second one. And be mindful of whether or not you are including a space within each quotation mark. Lastly, check for consistent hyphenation in commonly used terms.
A thorough search for terms that are both frequently used and capitalized is also an essential step in the proofreading process.
Extra Words and Missing Words
Writers have a tendency to read what they think is there, not what’s really there. A vital part of effective proofreading includes checking sentences that consist of multiple smaller words (such as “if it is in the…”).
There can also be a tendency to overlook repeated words when they span two lines, so be sure to check the ends and beginnings of lines carefully.
If the text uses Word’s styles, you should check that each part of the text has the correct style applied and that all headings are at the correct level. The following formatting conditions should also be checked:
Bold and italicized fonts should be used consistently and correctly
Confirm you have consistent spacing between sentences, lines, and paragraphs
Your margins need to be consistent on each page
Apply page breaks where they are necessary
You want consistently sized, placed, and aligned tables and graphics.
If a numbering system is applied in any way in your document (for example, numbering your pages), it is important to check the numbering as it is listed on each page. Make sure that your page numbers appear in the same location on each page of your manuscript and check again for consecutiveness. It's not uncommon for page 11 to follow 9, for example.
Headers and Footers
All headers and footers need to be located in precisely the same place on each page.
Placeholders are oftentimes used to reserve a section in your writing for information that you don’t yet have (such as XXX). Review your work closely to be sure no placeholders have gone unfilled once you are finished.
Tables and Graphics
Tables and graphics that are used in your writing may need to include written information to make them understandable. This information can come in the form of titles, captions, labels, data and/or source information. All of this is information that needs close attention when proofreading.
If lists are included in your writing, they should always follow a logical and consistent format.
For example, the following list is correct: You need to: - Eat your breakfast - Do your hair - Go to work
Whereas this one isn't: You need to: - Eat your breakfast - Make sure your hair is done - Don’t forget to go to work
TABLE OF CONTENTS
If you are creating a table of contents manually, be sure to adhere to the following rules:
All headings are listed
The wording in the table of contents matches the text
Consistent capitalization is applied to all titles
All page numbers are accurate.
If your writing software creates the table automatically, simply double-check it to be sure it follows the rules listed above.
References are a great way to support your writing. If references are included, check that each reference in the text has a corresponding entry in the reference list and that each item in the list is styled consistently. Consult your departmental handbook if you are required to use a particular referencing style.
The proofreading process is perhaps most clearly defined by understanding what it is not. It is not just a quick look. It is an array of final steps that are taken to ensure consistency and accuracy throughout your document.
Proper proofreading can mean the difference between content that is unacceptable and content that is praised and perhaps even rewarded.