editing, font size, font type, grammar, grammar checker, headings, indenting, margins, page layout, paragraphing, proofreader, proofreading, proofreading tables and charts, readability, spelling, spelling checker, style sheet, typo, typographical error
Proofreading is the final check of a document before it is sent out or published. Traditionally, it refers to the process of checking material that has been typeset ready for printing, where a proofreader verifies that everything in the original document has come across correctly into the typeset version. These days, most documents are not typeset, and proofreading no longer usually involves checking one version against another. Nevertheless, the principles and the importance of proofreading remain.
The principles apply to all types of documents, whether articles for a writing site, promotional material, workplace reports, publications of all types, and of course job applications. Given the tight labor market these days, it is more important than ever to make sure your job application is well written, clearly laid out and totally free of any spelling mistakes, poor grammar and typographical errors.
- Make time between writing and proofreading
Leave as much time as possible between writing a document and proofreading or editing it if the author is also the proofreader/editor. This allows you to come back to the document with a fresh pair of eyes, and chances are you will pick up errors that you hadn’t noticed while writing, rewriting and editing. Try to put a document aside until at least the next day before proofreading. This isn’t always possible, in which case you could come back to the document after a meal or short break.
- Find quiet place free of distractions
When proofreading a document, you need as few distractions as possible. Try and find a quiet place where you are unlikely to be disturbed. That might mean shutting yourself in the back room or waiting until the kids have gone to bed. For some people, it might mean heading to the local library. In the workplace, it might be possible to find an empty office or a small meeting room that isn’t currently being used.
- Get someone else to proofread
In some situations, it might be a good idea to get someone else to proofread your work. Any writer can get too close to their work and a different set of eyes might pick up things the author has missed. Even expert writers will often use a proofreader. In the workplace, see if there’s a colleague who might have time to check through your report before it’s submitted to management.
- Proofread on paper
Proofreading is easier on printed copy rather than on a computer screen. Research has shown that people read faster on paper, although this is now less of an issue with high resolution computer monitors. Printed copy still has the advantage of allowing you to move back and forth through a document more easily, looking for inconsistency in such things as page layout, paragraphing, margins, indenting, headings, font type and size, and so on. Corrections and comments can then be transferred to the electronic document (where an editable file type has been used, such as a word processed document), making it easier for the author to accept or reject suggested edits.
- Don’t rely on spelling and grammar checkers
Spelling checkers are a useful tool but they won’t pick up errors such as incorrect word usage, for example, there, their and they’re, or advice and advise, or to and too, or its and it’s and a host of others. They tend to have limited dictionaries, so a word might be perfectly correct but appears as an error as it’s not in the dictionary. Also, many words have alternative spellings, and different versions might appear in the same document. These differences won’t be picked up by a spelling checker.
Grammar checkers are far from perfect and cannot be relied upon. They will pick up faulty grammar in many cases and suggest changes, although they will usually miss a lot of instances of grammatical errors. They are notorious for pointing out sentence fragments that are actually correctly structured sentences. To use a grammar checker successfully, you need to know your grammar!
- Proofread several times
Proofreading should involve several passes over a document, concentrating on particular aspects each time. This might involve checking headings in one pass, paragraphing and alignment in another, then consistency of tables and charts, then grammar and typographical errors, and finally overall readability. Even for a one or two page article, it is best to proofread for errors and readability separately. I nearly always go through online articles twice before posting.
- Keep a style sheet
It’s often a good idea to keep a style sheet, especially for documents where the various parts are written by different authors and even where an organization has its own style guide. Style sheet entries can be arranged alphabetically and will ensure consistency throughout the document. It can include spelling of certain words, what to capitalize, punctuating bullet points, formatting of dates, words using a hyphen and those not, and anything else where there is more than one way of doing something.
- Pay attention to detail
This is one of the most important aspects of proofreading, and if done properly and thoroughly, it should result in a document free of any errors and inconsistencies. It involves checking for consistency in spelling, hyphenation, shortened forms, capitalization, numbers and dates. Check for things like punctuation, quotes, captions, cross-referencing relating to chapter and section numbers, factual errors, headers and footers relating to the correct chapter, and number of spaces after a period (full stop).
- Check everything
Make sure that you check everything. Some people think of proofreading as a quick read through a document before it is finalized, to pick up any spelling mistakes, typographical errors, poor grammar and ambiguities. While these things are important, there are many more things to look out for.
If you are proofreading a large publication, one of the first things to do is to check that the components of a publication are in a logical and conventional order. A title page, imprint page and then a table of contents usually appear at the start, perhaps followed by lists of figures, tables and abbreviations. A summary and an introduction should follow. After the main text, make sure any appendixes are properly labeled.
Check the layout of each page making sure it is consistent, including margins, page breaks, and adequate white space. Tables, figures and other illustrations should be properly placed. All pages should be numbered. Headings should be consistent, and if there are several levels of headings, they should form a proper hierarchy. There should also be consistency with fonts and font size, footnotes, and any headers and footers.
- Checking tables and charts
Many documents will have statistical tables and charts. These need special attention when proofreading. In the typesetting process, charts and tables are things that are more likely to go wrong than most other parts of a document. Each part of a chart needs to be checked, including the title, X-axis and Y-axis titles, labels and scale, the legend, the lines and columns themselves, footnotes and source.
With tables, check that titles, column and row headings, headnotes, all numbers, footnotes and sources have been brought across properly. Make sure that table titles (and chart titles) accurately reflect what the data are about. Data should be checked back to the source collection or document. Also, check that numbers in the text agree with those in the tables.