How to Proofread | Tips for Proofreading Your Writing | GGC
At my first job after college, my manager groused, “You think you know how to proofread, but I’m going to teach you the right way, and everybody else is wrong.” He was like that, a curmudgeon, rigid and old-fashioned in his thinking. Talking to him was like being on the set of an old black-and-white TV show. I wondered what I could possibly learn from this old man about the dynamic world of marketing. Turned out I could learn a lot.
Here I share his secret for proofreading that has saved my vegan bacon more than once. The steps are not easy. If you are proofing a few sentences for a web page, then don’t bother. A careful read will suffice, and if you miss a boo-boo, then it’s easy to correct. However, if you are proofing a press release for a publicly traded company, an email that the CEO is going to read, or a brochure that will be printed, then stick to these steps like Gorilla Glue.
Proof for one thing at a time
The insight is to proof for one thing at a time. Proof for subject-verb agreement, each verb and each subject in every sentence all the way through. Then proof for punctuation errors, all the way through. Then capitalization, then people’s titles, then bullets, then headlines, then subheads, then fonts. This is the only way to be sure you don’t skip something, and you will discover inconsistencies that you would have otherwise missed.
If you’re shrugging right now, then you haven’t tried it. It’s a revelation, like a sword rising from a lake. You’ll wonder how you were ever sharp-eyed without it.
Know it forward and backward
Now you know the secret. However, you need to know more proofreading tips, and these are related to technology. Spell check isn’t perfect for spelling errors, especially when a word isn’t misspelled but is just the wrong word, like using “spellcheck” instead of “spell check.” Also, when we read, the mind fills in gaps, so we can be blind to missing words like “of.” This brings me to tip No. 2: read the text backward. It forces you to see each word with fresh eyes, and it deconstructs the sentence structure in a way that makes missing words stand out like burned-out LEDs in a highway sign.
Use a grammar checking app
Tip No. 3 is use proofing tools such as Grammarly and Hemingway. Free versions are available. Remember that the software isn’t perfect, so it will miss things and catch things that aren’t really wrong. Like an overprotective mother, Grammarly almost always finds something I overlooked, and I have to grudgingly accept that she was right.
By the way, the paid version of Grammarly has a plagiarism checker. It searches the web for phrases that match, essential when you are placing articles for publication. I’ve had an editor reject a repurposed article because Grammarly showed him the other places it was published. Also, even trusted writers occasionally forget to reword a sentence pasted from Wikipedia or a competitor website. The plagiarism checker will help keep you out of copyright issues.
Go to the source
You can’t proof what you don’t see. Comparing to the original source is the only way to know that something is missing. There could be a missing paragraph, missing illustration, or even a whole missing section. This side-by-side review also helps you spot errors that you may overlook in a careful reading, like poor word choices, grammar mistakes, and missing punctuation.
Now, let’s talk about numbers, tables, and charts. You can’t proof them by looking at them! The only way is to look at the original source file, to make sure that numbers were typed correctly, that every area of a chart is present in the version that you’re proofing, that symbols and marks are correct. This goes for any number in a doc: it must be proofed against the original source.
Call and click
My last tip will surprise you: call the phone numbers and visit the website links to make sure they are correct. This includes email footers and press release boilerplates. You’ll think, this is the same link and same phone number that’s on everything, so why do I need to check?
Things change. Web pages break or get moved. You’ll be a hero if you catch errors and tell the team that a link isn’t working anymore. Once I called the usual 800 number and discovered that the finance department had canceled the number, thinking it wasn't being used! Also, calling forces you to slow down and really read the number.
It takes only seconds to call. If a human receptionist answers (some companies still have them), then don’t waste their time by explaining why you’re calling. Just say, “sorry, wrong number.” Trust me… they don’t want to talk to you, either.
Follow these proofreading tips
Inevitably, proofing errors happen to everybody who works in marketing. To keep your mistakes to a minimum, the best course is to have the discipline to follow the tips I’ve outlined above. Save your energy for the real marketing challenges.