Proofreading –Review of Common Writing Errors

Ronnie Arora_cc_2.0

By Cole Hornaday

For many, expressing oneself in writing is an exercise of abject horror. The very act of wrestling one’s words into print, then wrangling them into grammatically appropriate attire so they may be trotted out and paraded before others is daunting to many and terrifying to most.

Natural-born writers are out there in the world, but they’re not born every day. Like athletes, they need training and practice. And they need tools to keep their writing in tune.

They say the key to good writing is re-writing, but for all the concise arguments, apt discussions and compelling narratives one may strive to write, all will collapse under its own weight without the keen eye of a sturdy proofreader.

9 times out of 10 times that sturdy proofreader will be you.

Talk about your abject horror.

Beyond those who aspire to have a career in editing, proofreading is a practice most learn through doing. In doing, many of us struggle to get it right.  

“When we proofread our own writing, we already know the meaning we want to convey,” says Melanie Austin, instructor of Proofreading—Review of Common Writing Errors. “That’s why it’s easy to miss any errors and omissions. What we see on the screen competes with the version in our head. Our readers will spot them, though, because they’re seeing the writing for the first time. To overcome this tendency to read for meaning we have to trick our brains into believing that it’s seeing the writing for the first time.”

Believe it or not, as we draft and redraft our work in an effort to refine our message, we actually train our brains to miss the obvious cosmetic flaws and oversights in our work. This is not uncommon; in fact, it’s par for the course. Proper grammar is a rangy beast that takes time and practice to tame.

“Many writers I know struggle with punctuation and grammar ‘rules,’” says Austin.  “Professional proofreaders keep a dictionary, thesaurus, and style guides at their fingertips. Spell Check doesn’t catch all misspelled words, particularly homonyms. And we’re probably all familiar with Grammar Check’s limitations.”

So what’s to be done? How do we tame the proofreading process?

“When you proofread, it helps to trick your brain into believing that it’s seeing the writing for the first time,” says Austin.  “That’s why some writers proofread from back to front, moving word by word, and scrutinizing punctuation marks. Others like to change the typeface and font size. Whenever time permits, I let the writing sit for a day or two, print it out, and read it aloud. After marking the errors I transfer the corrections into the electronic document.”

So, are we to believe trickery is the most productive route to sturdy proofreading? Absolutely. Yet for all the trickery inherent in the practice of good proofreading, there’s no getting past a good working knowledge of practical grammar.

“I also recommend that writers either take a grammar refresher course or buy a grammar handbook with practice exercises,” says Austin. “When we are familiar with sentence types and patterns, punctuation rules, and grammar guidelines, we can write better and with more confidence. (And when we break the rules, we do so knowingly.) I think it’s also a good idea to keep track of the type of errors one makes. I have a chart containing my particular hang-ups—one being the distinction between continuous and continual—which I can refer to when I’m proofreading my own work.”

Austin notes in our modern, digital age where the majority of text consumed is via social media, our culture seems less and less concerned with grammatical quality.

“It’s been my observation that people are not as concerned about errors anymore, particularly punctuation, subject-verb agreement, or the distinction between “like” and “as if” or “as though.” I have noticed, however, that book reviews on Amazon often praise a book for being well-edited or deride the number of errors and typos in a book. One of my copy editing jobs involved cleaning up a book that had already been self-published. The author was tired of all the flack.”

Regardless of the medium of your message, a desire for diligent proofreading comes down to pride in one’s work. A concise, well-written and thoroughly proofread document represents the writer’s integrity and work ethic. 

“My greatest stumbling block to proofreading my own work is being in too big a rush to be done with it,” says Austin. “When I’m emailing, I often push send before I’ve had time to proofread thoroughly, usually because of time constraints. And I suspect I’m not the only one who doesn’t have time to let the writing sit for a time before sending it off. So I would guess that job-related anxiety accounts for many of the errors that go undetected, in addition to spelling and grammar hang-ups.”

Here are some quick tips to successful proofreading.

Proof from a printout, not the computer screen. You’ve spent hours training your brain to expect what to see on the computer screen. Trick it by working off a hard copy.

Read it out loud. This is an incredibly helpful way to not only see but hear grammatical bear-traps like comma splices and run-on sentences. If it doesn’t sound right, it probably won’t read right either.

Use a blank sheet of paper to cover up the lines below the one you're reading. This technique keeps you from skipping ahead and glossing over errors.

Use your computer search function to single out mistakes you know you commonly make. For example: search for "it," if you are prone to confuse "its" for "it's”.

If you tend to make hordes of mistakes, seek out each error separately.
Don’t try to catch all errors in one sweep. For instance, read through once to check for fragments, read through another time to be sure subjects and verbs agree and so forth.

“I might add that professional writers need proofreaders as much as anyone else,” says Austin. “When I finish my book, I will hire a proofreader to make sure all is in order before it goes to press.

No writer is immune to errors in their work. You can be a seasoned journalist or a freshman English student and errors in punctuation and grammar will slip into your work no matter your degree of diligence. It’s important to make proofreading a part of your writing process and not an afterthought or last-minute chore.

Consider this: if writing is rewriting then proofreading is rereading—rereading until it reads right. It kind of takes the pain out of the process when you read it that way, doesn’t it?

Learn more about Melanie Austin’s class, Proofreading—A Review of Common Writing Errors.

Photo credit #1: Ronnie Arora_cc_2.0

Posted on: October 6th, 2015 at 09:56:14

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