Proofreading one’s own writing presents challenges. We know what should be there, what we meant to say, and so our brains fix the errors as we read, without drawing our attention to them. This fact is why everyone needs an editor (even editors who write need someone else to look at their writing before it goes out to readers). Sometimes, however, you might have to do it yourself.
Excellent proofreaders charge $4.00 to $5.00 a page, which is out of reach for some writers. Some proofreaders are very affordable, however, and offer rates as low as $1.00 a page, depending on their experience and the rate of errors in the work (hire a proofreader), but perhaps you don’t have any money at all to hire someone, and you feel that you have to do it yourself at first. Perhaps there’s just no time to send this particular piece to someone else. If you’re forced to do it yourself, the tips in this post and in the free tip sheet (sign up for it in the sidebar) will help.
Fresh eyes for do it yourself proofreading
After you’re done writing and editing your piece, set it aside for a while. How long is “a while?” It depends on how long your manuscript is, and how long you’ve already been working on it. You need fresh eyes before you edit, which you need to do before you proofread, and then you need fresh eyes again before you proofread. Editing is a separate task, and is addressed in a separate editing tip sheet.
Getting fresh eyes might mean you have to take an hour away from it, or as long as a month or two, depending on its length and how tired you are. Writers go over their work so much that it all becomes a blur eventually, and it’s important that when you start to proofread, that blur has cleared up again.
Using spell check
Run spell check and grammar check before you start going through the steps below, but do not rely on either one. The programs have flaws, and sometimes I wonder what the designer was thinking (especially when it comes to subject-verb agreement surrounding prepositional phrases), but running the spelling and grammar check it is a good preliminary step before jumping into do it yourself proofreading, and you might catch most (or even all) of the errors with it.
When you’re proofreading it yourself, you will make several “passes” over your work, instead of trying to find all of the different kinds of errors in one read-through. Choose one kind of error to look for first. You might decide to look for spacing errors such as two spaces after the end-of-sentence punctuation.
Spaces after a period
The industry standard for print is one space after a period. In school in the United States, we were taught to put two spaces after the end of a sentence, and in some areas of academia, that’s still accepted. It’s not accepted in the rest of the publishing world, including online content, however.
The “find and replace” feature in Microsoft Word can slash the time it takes to remove extra spaces at the end of sentences. On one book I edited and proofread, I saved approximately four hours by using the “find and replace” feature to remove the extra spaces at the end of the sentences throughout the book, as opposed to going through and doing it manually.
Finding errors in your writing
Even though you might think there isn’t time to send your piece to someone else, take your time when you’re proofreading it yourself. It might feel like it’s taking an hour to get through a single page, but that’s the way it is. If you rush, you will miss errors.
Go over a piece at least three times. I like to look for one kind of error at a time, and when I’ve gone through my list (meaning I’ve gone over the piece several times already), I read through it slowly two more times, just to be sure I get all of the errors.
Follow your style guide consistently. In academia, you may be required to use MLA (Modern Language Association), APA (American Psychological Association), or another style. In trade publishing, it’s often the Chicago Manual of Style. In journalism and many online sources, AP (Associated Press) is the style guide required.
There are other style guides, as well, and you may or may not have a choice about which one to use. Just get familiar with the one you’re using and stay consistent. The more familiar you are with the style guide you’re using, the more time you’ll save.
Proofread from hard copy or screen?
You may choose to print the manuscript so you have a hard copy to work with, or you may choose to work with it on your computer. You might have to experiment. I know some people who can’t see the errors well on the screen, but spot them on paper. Others see them equally well either way. If you do proofread from your computer screen, be sure to take plenty of breaks to prevent eye strain. You’ll probably discover what works best for you after you’ve done it both ways a few times.
Be sure you have good lighting. Fluorescent lighting is not a good choice, because the flicker rate is slower and it can cause eye strain faster than other kinds of lighting do. Natural light is the best, but if you don’t have that option, use incandescent light if you can. If you must use fluorescent lighting, be sure to take plenty of breaks and rest your eyes.
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