Top tips
for proofreading your own work (see Tip 1) or someone else's

1. If you wrote it, don't proofread it

Your brain is incredibly clever: it will read what what you meant to write, not what you actually wrote. It will automatically correct spelling errors, transpose words that have been written the wrong way round (‘is it’ for ‘it is’), read words that aren't even there, and much else besides.

Get a friend or colleague to proofread it for you. And don’t forget to ask them to look out for dangling participles. If they’re not sure what you mean, consider asking someone else instead.

(In my first draft of Tip 7, I wrote 'and it’s alphabetically structure may not suit everyone'. Admittedly I was skim-reading, but twice I read it and twice my experienced, qualified proofreader's brain corrected it to 'its alphabetical structure'. I was oblivious.)

3. Do it when you're most alert

For most people that means doing it in the morning. But if you’re at your best in the afternoon, do it then.

And take regular breaks. Proofreading requires intense concentration, and is more tiring than it sounds!

4. Don’t rely on spell-check software

Use it but understand its limitations. It will spot misspelled words (‘theere’), but won’t pick up words that have been spelled correctly but used in the wrong context (‘there/their’). Personally, I prefer to keep it turned off.

5. Read it aloud

If you’re not sure about something, read it aloud. Does it sound right? If not, there may be something amiss.

2. Print it out

I know: the trees, the trees … But, trust me, you’ll spot more errors proofreading a paper copy than you will when working on screen. Print it out. Then RECYCLE IT.

Other fun proofreading facts

You are less likely to spot mistakes:

  • in capitalised text

  • at the beginnings and ends of lines.

So slow down.

6. Read it backwards

This links to Tip 1. The more familiar you are with the material, the less likely you are to spot mistakes. Reading text backwards is a useful tool for defamiliarising the material. I don’t do it a lot, and I have never read an entire document backwards, but it can be a useful technique for unpicking a problem.

7. Equip yourself for the job

This should be Tip 1, but it’s a long one so I’ve saved it to the end.

If you are writing and proofreading as part of your job, you owe it to yourself to know the basic principles of English grammar and punctuation – and to be able to apply them.

What does ‘basic’ mean? That’s a tricky one. I probably make more corrections to comma use and the hyphenation of compound attributive adjectives (‘up-to-date version’, ‘last-minute booking’) than anything else – so they may be good places to start. If you’re serious, you should probably know how to identify and fix a dangling participle (read on!). That means understanding how a sentence works: knowing your word classes, their functions within a sentence – and, crucially, how they relate to each other.

So, where to start?

Before you do anything else, save to your online Bookmarks. The site includes useful and accessible guides not only to spelling but to grammar, punctuation and usage.

Now what?

Find a grammar book that works for you; there are plenty around. David Crystal’s Rediscover Grammar is usually my first point of call. If I need a quick sanity-check, I might reach for Collins Easy Learning Grammar and Punctuation. I’m a fan of Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation (and not just because it fits in my coat pocket) but its alphabetical arrangement of subjects may not suit everyone. Shop around.

While you’re shopping around, get yourself a style/usage guide. I wouldn’t be without New Hart’s Rules and Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (or its abridged, and less expensive, Fowler’s Concise Modern English Usage). The Guardian and Observer style guide is an informative and often entertaining online resource.

I’m not suggesting you eat grammar for breakfast, but you should aim for a working knowledge of grammar that meets your needs. ---

How to undangle a participle

What's wrong with this sentence?

Proofreading a really good novel, time just flies by.

The offending participle is ‘proofreading’. According to the sentence, who is doing the proofreading? Best guess: ‘time’ is. Who is actually doing the proofreading? I am – the absent subject of the sentence. You need to rewrite it, to include the subject (me):

When I'm proofreading a really good novel, time just flies by.

Hard to spot because our clever brains (see Tip 1) somehow make sense of it.