I’ve always thought so.
Some people are good at putting a critical eye to their own work but as I’ve always been terrible at it.
With me, I think it is a combination of a couple of things.
- I’m a bit lazy.
- I’m possibly a bit arrogant. I was naturally a good writer for my age when I was younger and I think this may have led to me having a false confidence about my need for correction.
- Then there are deadlines involved I can feel the time pressure. Sadly, I often sacrificed proofreading for more writing time.
- I find it very hard to pull myself out of a piece.
I think that this final point is a common problem for many and it is specific to proofreading your own work. You already know what you’re saying with the words, so it can often be hard to spot when what is actually there doesn’t line up with what in your head.
That is why being a proofreader is a career in itself.
Beyond spelling and grammar corrections, it is incredibly valuable to get fresh, experienced and uninvested eyes on your work.
In a large agency, there are usually a process to make proofreading easier but if you are working for yourself, or even a smaller business with less resources, being able to proofread your own work is essential tool for a professional writer.
Your client is paying you because you’re the expert. If they are spending the approval process correcting spelling, grammar and syntax, then they are going to start questioning whether you’re worth it.
So, what’s the solution?
Well, if you’re like me, and don’t rate your natural ability to check your own work, you need to develop a process that can combat your bad habits.
When I’ve just spent a good few days knocking out a few thousand words the last thing I want to do is read back through it. And when time pressures come into play, it becomes very easy to convince myself to skip the step completely.
So, here is the process I developed to force myself to go over my work with attention to detail. It might not be pretty or elegant but it works.
Leave it at least 24 hours
The number one problem with bad proofreading is you are already too familiar with what you are saying. I find a full day is usually enough to get the meaning out of your head, so you can you can focus on the words again.
This will help you identify mistakes but it will also help to make your prose tighter.
For example, in a recent piece of content I wrote the sentence:
“Aggregators run a business model that is based on making bookings simple.”
There is nothing wrong with this sentence from a grammatical point of view. But when I re-read it several days later I spotted a possible semantic issue. You see, while the sentence is valid, the first 11 words could have been the beginning of an entirely different sentence.
“Aggregators run a business model that is based on making bookings on a laptop”
“Aggregators run a business model that is based on making bookings at the last moment”
In both these examples the semantic meaning of “making bookings” is slightly different than in the original sentence. Certain readers would have gotten to the word ‘simple’ and have had to scan back and readjust to find the intended meaning. This breaks the flow of the writing and that is something good content never does.
I never would have picked up on this if I proofread the article directly after writing it. After all: I know what I meant – why would I read it differently?
In the end, I changed the sentence to:
“Aggregators run a business model that is based on making the booking process simple.”
Slightly longer than the sentence’s initial form, but with no linguistic garden paths to confuse the reader.
Change the font and font-size
I write in Arial at size 11 and proofread in Comic Sans at size 18.
The shape of Comic Sans is clean and readable but also distinct from any type of font I usually read in. The larger size of font gives me less words to focus on per line, helping to slow down my natural reading flow.
In short, it completely changes the reading experience.
This visual change is enough for me to look at my words fresh and avoid my brain filling in the gaps of ‘what I really meant’. Changing your perspective gives you a chance to spot things that had become invisible to you.
Start with the bottom paragraph and work your way up
When writing, flow is everything you want to create. You want users to be reading your article barely noticing that their 20 paragraphs deep and still engrossed.
When you’re proofreading though, flow is your enemy. When you read your work from top to bottom you can get caught up in what the article is about, rather than the validity of the actual grammar and syntax. Reading the paragraphs out of order helps short-circuit this problem.
You can try doing this by sentence if you want by I generally find that to be overkill. The structure of the paragraph as a whole is important and you might end up sounding like a robot.
Never assume your change fits
A paragraph is not completely proofread until you read it all the way through and don’t make a single change.
I usually find if I write a sentence once and don’t touch it, there won’t be errors.
Most copy errors come from writing a sentence and then editing it on the fly. You think you’re making all the right changes but it’s hard to see what’s going on when you’re in the middle of it all. Changing a word anywhere in a sentence can affect the overall structure. Tense can be a tricky thing to completely account for, as can things like incorrectly placed plurals or faulty parallels.
If that all sounds like jargon, here is an example: in your quest for conciseness you’re going to play around with relative-phrases like “not only”, “and also” and “however when”. Phrases like these help to compact sentences and link ideas smoothly together, but they only work cleanly in certain sentence structures.
When you change structure mid-sentence words can be left floating. They might not look out of place, or even technically be grammatically incorrect, but they will make your writing clunky.
Edit as much as you want, but ensure you read every paragraph all the way through at least once before moving on.
It isn’t “just proofreading”. Make time for it, pay for it or do something else
If you are writing for a living, it is important you start seeing proofreading as an essential part of your process.
I know from experience how hard it can be to hold off sending a job to a client once you’ve finished writing. This can go double if you are running past deadline or the client is pestering you to get it over. But this is an action that is born from thinking of checking your work as “just proofreading”.
Proofreading isn’t a “nice-to-have” part of the writing process. It is a non-negotiable.
When you are quoting the client, include the hours that it will take to properly proofread the work, and when setting a deadline include an extra day to get it done.
Trust me. You may lose work from handing in late copy, but you will lose a lot more consistently handing in sloppy writing.