Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Proof is in the Proofing

It’s one of the less fun, to say the least, parts of writing, even for someone like me who loves to write. But proofreading matters, no matter what type of writing you do.  If you’re a lawyer, it’s hard to make a good impression on clients, the court, or other attorneys you work with (or against) if you send documents with typos.  If you write fiction, nothing is more distracting to a reader, or more likely to alienate a potential publisher, than grammatical mistakes or spelling errors.  We’d all like to think our plots or characters or arguments are so compelling that the reader will soldier on despite being yanked out of the narrative by errors in spelling, format, or grammar.  But why take the chance?  And why would you want your reader – whether a book purchaser, judge, or business colleague – to stop in the middle of what you wrote to wonder whether a comma really belongs there or why that word looks wrong?

Ironically, the ease of revising documents today compared to the days of typewriters and photocopiers actually seems to make producing perfect text harder.  It’s possible via email and word processing and electronic publishing to edit documents down to the very last second, and so we do it.  Which makes it more likely we’ll miss errors.  Below are my top eight tips for producing perfect copy. You won’t be able to use all of them all the time.  But if you apply a few, chances are your finished work will be much closer to perfect.

(1) Give yourself time.  If it’s at all possible, aim to finish your brief, story, or statement the evening before it’s due so you can look at it fresh in the morning.  It’s amazing what will jump out at you.  If that’s not possible, and often it’s not these days, find a way to set the document aside for at least an hour, during which time you should do something completely unrelated, before the last read through. 

(2) Print and print preview.  At least once when your document is close to final, print it and review it on paper.  When you make final edits, print at least the pages you’ve changed, set them aside for a few minutes, then look one last time.  And before you email or submit any document, use the print preview feature on your word processor to eyeball the entire document.  Check for formatting aspects such as margins, paragraph indents, and spacing.  Nothing is more frustrating than slaving over a 10 or 20-page manuscript, making a last minor change, and not realizing it threw your formatting off so that suddenly there’s a half a blank page in the middle, or the font shrunk to 8 point on page three.  The reader sees this major problem and thinks you never bothered even to glance at the work before you sent it.  A quick review with print preview ensures your document looks good overall.

(3) Read aloud.  Reading a document aloud helps you get a fresh look and spot mistakes.  I often read my outgoing emails aloud before I send.  (This also helps me recognize if the tone of the email is other than what I intended.)  For longer documents, or shorter turn around times, try just reading aloud the areas you’re struggling with or the areas to which you made your last changes.

 (4) Use a ruler.  If you’ve rewritten a document several times and your eyes are blurring, try placing a ruler under each line of text as you read.  This helps you focus on one line at a time and makes it easier to spot mistakes.

(5) Read backwards.  Reading backwards won’t help you with grammar, but it will help you spot spelling errors and spacing issues like th is one.  Reading forwards, your mind tends to fill in the blanks and correct errors because, as hard as you try, your brain focuses on the content, not the actual words.  Reading backwards short-circuits that.  This approach obviously is not for entire novels or even 25-page briefs.  It can be very effective, however, for a short document that you absolutely need to be perfect.

(6) Share the work.  Ask a clerk, secretary, or colleague who has never reviewed your document before to read it.  Even if the person you ask is not a fantastic proofreader, he or she will almost certainly spot errors you read right through because you know the writing so well.  (If you’re a lawyer, you may wonder, why not let the client or your supervising partner do that – she or he is going to read the document anyway.  Yes, but do you really expect your client or supervisor to act as your assistant and correct your mistakes?  Really?)

(7) Aim for perfection.  Make it your goal to provide a story or brief or memo that’s free from all errors.  Is that realistic?  Probably not, especially if you are working on an 85,000 word novel.  But if you aim for a perfect document, the odds are, at worst, you will miss a few typos.  If you mentally shrug your shoulders and decide that typing “where” instead of “wear” or “therefore” instead of “therefor” really doesn’t matter, it’s likely you’ll produce work with many errors.  (Homonyms – words that sound the same but are spelled differently like “where” and “wear” – are the main reason you can’t rely on your word processor’s spell checker alone for proofreading.) 

(8) Start well and end well.  In a very long document, particularly if you need to finish within a short time period, you may not be able to proof the entire document one last time after your final changes and before calling it finished.  So, at the very least, make your first page and last page perfect.  Read them aloud, read them backwards, read them with a ruler to be sure those pages shine.  Why?  The beginning of a document provides the reader’s first impression, and the end of the document will be most likely to be remembered.  Make your first and last impressions good ones.

Now, if there are typos in the above, I’m going to be really embarrassed.

Lisa M. Lilly is an attorney and author of Kindle occult bestseller THE AWAKENING, short story collection THE TOWER FORMERLY SEARS AND TWO OTHER TALES OF URBAN HORROR, and numerous poems, short stories, and articles.  

Follow her on Twitter:  @lisamlilly

Check out The Awakening on Amazon:


  1. Great tips, Lisa. As a former magazine editor, I combined several of these techniques - reading aloud, backward, to a colleague who was looking at the text at the same time. I am getting ready to read my entire novel manuscript out loud to myself. It's more than 300 pages. I'll be at it a while!

  2. This was a great proofreading primer, and it did not contain a single typo so obviously the method works.

    1. That's a relief -- I'd hate to post about proofreading and find out I overlooked an error. I have been known to make them. :)