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Proofreading Tips

If I said I never send out documents with errors, I would be lying. Just today I realized that the notebooks for two classes I taught recently had an error in one of the page titles. What should have said “Use Active Verbs Primarily” said “Use Passive Verbs Primarily”! (If you were in a class with me at the University of Washington or Russell Investment Group and you see that incorrect title on a page, please change it!)

Have you had errors get past you? If you have, you know it is not that we don’t care about quality. Sometimes we care too much. The reason I occasionally have an error in a notebook is that I constantly customize. I change exercises, examples, and pages so that my classes are tailored to the audience. That takes time and invites errors. After all, when I have seen an exercise a hundred times and make a change in it, it is difficult to look at the page with fresh eyes. What used to say “Make Passive Verbs Active” became “Use Passive Active Verbs Primarily” to improve the logic of the exercise.

Other causes of errors are speed and productivity. If you are like us, you work fast and produce a lot. Unless you have a team of proofreaders to review your documents before you print or press Send, errors will slip through.

Given that rationale, here are a few proofreading suggestions to help you all of us:

  1. Proofread out loud, even if it’s just a whisper. Reading aloud requires more focus than silent reading, and it helps catch words like it for if. Note: You must read what is actually on the page or screen–not what you think ought to be there.
  2. Read from a printed page rather than a screen, whenever it is practical. With a printed sheet, it is easier to move your finger over the words as you say them and to use a ruler or straight edge as a guide.
  3. For a long document, check each element of content separately. For example, proofread separately  for headings, footers, page numbers, formatting consistency, etc.
  4. Check the spelling of proper names at least once. If you are not sure of the spelling of a person’s name, find out.
  5. Let time pass between the writing, editing, and proofreading stages whenever it is possible. With the passage of time, your content will be fresher to you.

If you do your best work and an error still sneaks through, forgive yourself and try to take it lightly. Maybe the reader won’t even notice. After all, for more than a year, our website mentioned clients in the pubic sector rather than the public sector. (Read about it here, along with a solution.) And we are still happily in business!

Do you have proofreading guidelines to share? Please add a comment below.

2017 UPDATE: I’ve designed an excellent online self-study course filled with proofreading tips and practice. Take Proofread Like a Pro to improve your skills and confidence.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

8 comments on “Proofreading Tips”

  • After sending my comment on “mirror imaging” to spell better, I found quite a few errors. 🙁
    I am at the beginning stages of my writing career, which I hope, one day, will be a major part of my life, but until then, I invite everyone that wishes to be a writer to use the mistakes that have been made as a tool to improve, and not as an excuse to stop writing.

    Thank you for the opportunity.

  • I could not have expressed that idea better. Thanks for sharing it.

    When people have doubts about their abilities as a writer, I also recommend thinking about genres. Some people do not enjoy or excel at writing annual reports, but they write beautifully sensitive corporate biographies. Some cannot write a marketing piece but are brilliant with newsletter articles. Understanding what we do well–and what we love–is a key to success as a writer.

  • I have been taught, and also teach in my Grammar and Proofreading classes at work, that you should read documents from the bottom to the top. First, read the last sentence of the document from beginning to end, then the second to last sentence, etc., until you get to the top of the document. This way you read each sentence for clarity and grammar divorced from the meaning of either the paragraph or the document. You do not read the content and gloss over the potential grammatical errors. Next, reread the entire document backwards, word-by-word. This divorces each word from the meaning of the sentence, enabling you to catch spelling errors you may have glossed over when reading the content of the sentence.

  • It’s impossibly difficult to proof my own work. My blog is riddled with mistakes. The only real remedies are getting someone else to do it and waiting until you are not word blind. I re-read stuff I wrote a couple of weeks later sometimes and it makes me wince! 🙂

  • Please refer my blog for ‘Top Ten Proofreading Tips’. The same article would soon be published in TechCraft (an ezine about Technical Writing and the works).

    Thank you for this wonderful blog. Keep writing.


  • proofreading is a very important tool to avoid mistakes, but i think that committing some mistakes is inevitable, because we are not machines or computers..i think the best way would be to be careful while writing from the beginning and to pay attention to every single word you write before sending or publishing…

  • Yes, checking the spelling is part of proofreading. You have to go every details of the writing to make sure that the document is error-free.

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