Proofreading for Dummies

Proofreading is hard, really hard, and it’s most difficult because it’s insidious; it can feel very easy, but you shouldn’t be fooled. Nothing is more difficult, I reckon, than proofreading your own work, but there are some tricks that can help you to catch the small errors in grammar and spelling that you might overlook usually. First, though, you need to finish your novel , and once you’re done proofreading you can start to look at re-writing. If you want to proofread well, these are the things you need to be doing;



These are some basic tools and tricks that will make the process of proofreading any piece of work easier for you in the long run;

Develop your own signs

When editing and proofreading it is necessary to make corrections in a way which you will understand at a later date. This is why it is key to standardise your signs and symbols before you begin. For example, drawing a line through a specific word or passage could mean to remove it, a question mark by a sentence, or passage might indicate confused tenses, and words which are misspelled might be circled or underlined. Go with whatever works for you, but if you want to make your life easier you should try to be as consistent as possible.


Brush up on your grammar and punctuation

No-one is perfect, so it’s key that you understand your own foibles when it comes to grammar and punctuation. Writers can break certain rules for effect, but much as with art you have to know them before you can make a choice about when and where breaking the rules is appropriate. There are hundreds of ways to improve your grammar and punctuation skills, but I’ve found My Grammar and I (or should that be ‘me’) and Eats shoots and leaves to be endlessly helpful books. Keeping tomes like this, and a good dictionary, to hand will do the world of good (so long as you actually read them!).



Some well known writing magazines in the UK offer editorial practice sections in which they challenge the reader to find mistakes; this is a great way to sharpen your skills. There are quite a few proofreading and editorial exercise books to be found, but I’d recommend this Proofreading Training Pack  as a good place to start.


The specifics;

These are the things you should do with each text you edit or proofread;


Work with a hard copy

Never proofread a document on your computer; you’ll be tempted to use spellcheck and to rely on the programs grammar checker too heavily. It’s much easier to spot mistakes within the text when working from a printed copy. Better still the notes you may make on a hard copy are less finicky than Word’s comment function, and easier to organise; you can colour code comments and notes with ease.


When proofreading you should consider one set of issues at a time. This is time consuming, certainly, but it ensures that the job is done well. Read the text with the intention of finding tense mix-ups, spelling errors, or grammar issues, not all three at once. This will make it more likely that you will find all (or a higher proportion) of the issues within the text.


Certain techniques make finding specific problems easier; isolation is a good way to find punctuation and spelling errors, depending upon how extreme the isolation is. At the most severe end of the scale is a technique which sees you reading the text backwards so that you can concentrate on each and every word; this is great for finding spelling errors in commonly over-looked, or more unusual, words, but won’t help you to spot misuse of Your/You’re, for example.

You could, however, use a piece of clean paper to isolate single sentences as you go; this enables a greater degree of focus, but retains some context.


Reading the text aloud will do what isolating words and sentences cannot; give you an idea of the overall flow of the text, and help to identify run-on sentences more effectively.

Work chapter by chapter

Or section by section; what matters is that you don’t bite off more than you can chew. When you’re more experienced you may find it easy to proofread for a few hours in one go, but don’t expect wonders of yourself from the get-go. The trick is to break up the text into recognisable, manageable chunks. Chapters are natural sections to use, of course, but if you’re reading a short story or an article you may wish to tackle only a few paragraphs at a time.

Do it twice

Never assume that you will have achieved perfection first go-round; this is a more common faux-pas than you would think. Take your time, and be prepared to repeat the process.


It never hurts to finish up with a spellcheck through your word-processor, either. If you have any proofreading or editing tips of your own, let me know in the comments, and if you want to know more about proofreading, editing, or other aspects of writing please check the Writing Resources page.


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6 thoughts on “Proofreading for Dummies

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