How to become a better proofreader
Proofreading is a skill that can be learned. Believe me when I say that I learned it the hard way. Your writing may be eloquent, insightful, even witty, but if you get someone’s name wrong -- (McFarlane? I thought it was McFarland.) or incorrectly calculate a United Way deduction in a graphic (What? It’s twice a month?) or simply don’t know your facts (Oh, it’s Canada – not Canadian – geese.) – they will never forget it. Neither will you.
Besides years of making mistakes (see preceding paragraph), three things have helped me improve the accuracy of communications for which I’m responsible: Training, a checklist and a two-sets-of-eyes rule.
In one of my first writing and editing jobs, it was suggested (OK, mandated) I attend a Proofamatics class. I am pleased to see that the company still exists and its techniques are the same. Proofamatics teaches you to look at a document multiple times, each time looking in different places for different types of errors. If you simply start at the first word in the upper left corner and read to the end, you will read for comprehension and overlook errors.
For example, if you’re proofreading a newsletter, you might first read the headlines, bylines, subheads, photo captions and authors’ biography paragraphs. Then, verify names, titles, numbers, times and dates. Finally, read the body text. This divide-and-conquer technique works best when you print out the pages, so you can see multiple pages at once and easily mark corrections.
My proofreading proficiency took a second leap forward when I created a checklist, at the suggestion of my husband, who was once described as an “engineer’s engineer.” Engineers love checklists, and for good reason; they present a systematic way to make sure every step in a process is completed. And, because I don’t read from top to bottom, front to back, a checklist helps me get back on track if I’m interrupted or take a break, which I highly recommend during marathon proofreading sessions.
Over the years, I’ve modified my proofreading checklist many times to reflect different types of publications and new technology. For example, my first checklist referred to bluelines; my current one lists hyperlinks. You are welcome to a copy of my checklist, however, please know that every situation calls for different “checks.” For example, I check “TOC with actual.” That is, do the headlines and page numbers in the table of contents (TOC) match the actual magazine or newsletter content? Your documents or web pages may not have a table of contents, but they might have footnotes, address blocks or some other element not on my checklist. The point is to create a checklist that meets your individual needs.
Finally, implement a two-sets-of-eyes rule. This is particularly important when you are proofreading your own writing. Ask someone else to proofread your work before publishing it in print or online. Suggest your backup proofreader use your divide-and-conquer technique and checklist.
The techniques I’ve shared here will add time to the process, but I firmly believe that it’s time well spent. Few people will notice if your newsletter or magazine is published a day behind schedule, but leave their name off a list (Randy, I know it’s been almost 30 years, but I still feel terrible.) and they will remember forever. So will you.
If you are interested in a copy of my proofreading checklist, please email me.
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