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This is the fifth post in my Write to Get Results blog series about professional writing.
Errors, typos, and inconsistencies diminish your content, look sloppy in public-facing documents, and can bring your credibility into question—especially in job application materials. To be taken seriously as a professional and add that extra polish to make your written material stand out (in a positive way!), always build in time to proofread. In fact, when proofreading is done properly, your audience won’t be aware of it at all. They’ll just notice clean, consistent content.
To help you achieve this goal, here are some proofreading strategies and tips drawn from my experience in the publishing industry.
What Is Proofreading?
Proofreading is the last step of the writing process before you share or publish. It’s a final review of your document to correct errors and fine-tune the quality of the content, focusing on typos, punctuation, spelling, grammar, inconsistencies, style, formatting (depending on the final document), and anything egregious that jumps out. However, proofreading can vary in meaning from person to person or in different contexts, so if you’ve been asked to proofread someone else’s document, clarify exactly what they mean so you spend your time wisely. The degree of rigorousness should depend on the importance of the document, but it’s not the stage where you make substantive, line-by-line structural or wording changes, or improve the inherent quality of the writing.
Proofreading Strategies and Best Practices
- Use grammar checking tools with care. There’s a plethora of free or subscription-based grammar checkers and proofreading tools available—such as Grammarly—with capabilities that go far beyond spell checking and vary in robustness and specialization. But do they replace a human proofreader? These tools have value, but there are still language, usage, and subtleties they don’t catch, so it’s best not to rely on them entirely. Always evaluate suggested revisions before implementing. They may not always be correct or in context.
- Bring in an outsider’s perspective. When you have been deeply immersed in a document, it can be surprising what you don’t “see” that an outsider to the document will zero in on. For this reason, ask an outsider to proof longer or important documents like job applications or public-facing materials.
- Keep comments professional. If proofing someone else’s document in Word, Google Docs, or a PDF using comments, the same rule applies as for email: in case it is shared, keep tone and remarks neutral and professional.
Proofreading doesn’t just apply to published material; it’s in your best interest to proof anything that you’ve written and plan to share in a professional capacity. Your content and message—not typos—are what you want your reader to notice.
Proofread Systematically for Specific Issues
First, run grammar check and find-and-replace searches for writer- or document-specific issues to catch known weaknesses or commonly made errors (for instance, extra spaces after periods between sentences, or the tendency to use “your” instead of “you’re” or “its” instead of “it’s”).
Next, check for typos and other specific items. It’s best not to proof for everything in one reading. For example, if you are checking formatting as well as the text, you may want to split those into separate review passes. Here’s a list of items to watch for:
- Missing or double words (such as “the the”). In these instances, your brain has a tendency to fill in the blank or dismiss the duplicate word, so be on the lookout for both.
- Distracting repetition of words or phrases. Even in a carefully edited document, you might miss that you used “strategic” four times in one short paragraph until you proofread. Refer to a thesaurus to break up noticeable repetition.
- Wrong words. Be aware of common word pairs that many professionals confuse in their writing. If you are unsure of the differences between ensure and insure, affect and effect, and lead and led, familiarize yourself with the proper usage.
- Inconsistencies. Make sure that the document consistently follows the proper style if one has been designated—whether it’s an industry-standard style manual such as APA or CMS, or other organization- or branding-specific guidelines. But even if it doesn’t religiously follow a style manual, your document will look unprofessional—and might be confusing—if there are obvious inconsistencies in content or appearance. Make sure globally used terms, phrases, and acronyms are spelled, abbreviated, punctuated, and capitalized the same way throughout. The same applies to formatted elements such as headings. Check that each level or type of heading is the same size, font, and capitalization style.
- Hyperlinks. Make sure that each link works and goes to the correct source.
After you’ve made all final changes, run spell check, even if you did so at an earlier stage.
Don’t Rely Only on Your Screen
- Proofread a hard copy. Though most of us are accustomed to reading and working on a screen, it’s amazing what you can catch on a hard copy. If you can’t print your document, save and view it in a different format (a PDF, for example). This helps you to literally see it differently.
- Read the document out loud. If you are working in MS Word 365, you can use the Read Aloud feature (under the “Review” tab) while you follow along. For writing that can have a substantial impact on your career (think the proposal that will single-handedly triple your company’s annual revenue) have a trusted colleague, friend, or partner silently read the hard copy as you read it aloud.
Take a Breather, Then Set a Limit
- Take a break from the content before you proof. Let complex or critical documents sit for a day before you proofread. Even an hour or two will help. During that time, switch gears and don’t even think about the document so you return to it fresh.
- Remove distractions and turn off notifications. A singular focus will ensure a thorough proofread.
- Be aware of diminishing returns. Proofing a document ten times will not necessarily be more effective than three unless you are being strategic about it. Designate a specific block of time or number of passes and stick with it.
Proofreading doesn’t just apply to published material; it’s in your best interest to proof anything that you’ve written and plan to share in a professional capacity. Make sure to build proofreading strategies into your writing process. A few more minutes spent can make a huge difference. Your content and message—not typos—are what you want your reader to notice.