How to Proofread: The Nine Best Ways to Improve Your Writing
writing, rewriting, and the persuit of perfection
You’ve written and rewritten, read your piece so many times you could almost quote it from memory. You’re done.
Then you glance over the text again, and a repeated word jumps out at you. What if you’d hit Publish without noticing?
The danger is in the familiarity. Once you’ve nearly memorized the piece, the mistakes slip by unnoticed.
Time to shake things up. Every writer seems to have a unique way to make their text appear new again—and here are some of the best ways to proofread your work, time-honed by 15 writers as they polished their writing into something ready to publish.
Close the laptop. Stash the pen. Stretch, get some fresh air, do something else.
The only way to get some perspective is to look at your writing with a bit of distance. And that takes time.
“Sometimes if my head has been in it for too long, it helps to take a break and come back to it later,” says author Jason Crawford.
“Always let the work sit for a while after it’s written,” says novelist Matt Gemmell “Give it time, and give yourself time to move a little bit away from it, then take a look with fresh eyes.”
How long? A day or so works for most. Rochi Zalani says to wait “at least 24 hours (better if you can make it 48).” And for the most important, long-form writing, Self-editing for Fiction Writers authors Renni Browne and Dave King take it even further: “You can gain some objectivity if you walk away from your writing for a few days or weeks,” they say.
The goal is to get the specific words out of your head. Then when you come back with fresh eyes and a clear mind, the things that aren’t working are far more likely to jump out at you.
Print it out.
Time alone won’t provide enough space to notice all the issues. “You can’t effectively proofread in the same format as you write,” says Gemmell. You might also need to change how you look at your words—and for that, an old-school approach might be best.
“I like printing things out and taking physical notes,” says Notion content lead Nate Martins.
Writing is Designing co-author author Andy Welfle agrees: “Nothing beats going through pages on a clipboard with red ink.”
So turn on the printer, make sure there’s enough margin in your document to add notes and comments, then hit Print and appreciate the weight of your words on dead trees. Find somewhere comfortable to sit and read through everything. Grab a pen, and add some traditional proofreading marks to highlight what needs changed.
The mistakes will jump off the page, and you’ll know exactly what to fix when you’re back at the desk.
Change how the text looks.
Paper’s not the only way. You can proofread on screens, too; you just might want to change things around first.
I write at my desk on a larger screen. Then I’ll grab my phone or iPad and proofread on the couch. The same trick works on a Kindle or other eInk device for a more paper-like reading experience. Anything to get your text looking different than it did while you were writing.
Matt Gemmell uses the iPad as his primary computing device, writing in a standard landscape mode with a keyboard. Then, when it’s time to proofread, he’ll grab his iPad, “flip [it] to portrait orientation, bump up the point size, and take it to the couch in my office,” says Gemmell. He then uses Apple Pencil to add quick corrections, much like Andy Welfle’s red pen on paper.
Or, proofread on the same device you wrote on, but make things look different. “For intense editing,” says The Next Web's Abhimanyu Ghoshal, “I prefer moving the text over to GDocs, changing the font and font size (so as to make the actual words and letters look less familiar), and having a go at it.”
Even shrinking your writing app’s window or adding margin to your page can move the words around just enough to look new. Every so often, that’s all it takes.
Move your text around.
Or skip proofreading. Jump right to the next phase of your editorial workflow instead. Every time you copy and paste your text into another app, that’s a chance to see your writing in a new light. You can proofread by accident and discover things to change along the way.
“I often spot things to change after moving the draft from the Google Doc to Substack and previewing it or sending myself a test email,” says Amplitude’s Arpit Choudhury. It’s the same trick as changing the font and font size, only this time in service of the larger goal of getting your writing published.
Developer marketer Adam DuVander has a similar trick. “I prefer to do a final proofread when something is closest to its final form,” says DuVander. While that might have meant reading the words on paper in the past, today, “That means it’s been loaded into the content management system, such as WordPress or ConvertKit.”
From writing app to collaborative editing tool to grammar checker to CMS, each stage changes how your text looks and highlights things to fix before your readers notice them.
Listen to your text.
“The eye can be fooled, but the ear knows,” wrote Dave King and Renni Browne. Their book focuses on how fictional dialogue sounds, but the advice rings true, no matter what you’re writing.
So perhaps instead of changing how your text looks, change how it gets into your head.
Or, don’t read—listen. “I like to have my computer read my articles to me,” says writer Justin Pot. “I tend to skip over my own typos while reading, but hearing my typos out loud makes them obvious.”
Either way, listen closely. Take it all in. It’s not just repeated words and typos you’re listening for, it’s also the ebb and flow, the rhythm, lit, and harmony (to paraphrase Gary Provost’s famous example of why to vary sentence length) of your writing.
Or, listen differently. “One crazy technique I learned is reading backwards,” says Nate Martins, “starting at the last word, then moving your way to the first word.” It’s tedious—but you’re highly unlikely to miss anything when working that hard to read.
Read, then read again. And again.
You might even do all three, reading on paper, then following up on a device, before sitting back and listening to your words out loud. Each time, you’ll catch something new, find some stray word or missing phrase to fix.
“It's just a lot of re-reading and trying out new sentences,” says author Michael Metts of his writing and editing process that includes reading what he’s written three or four times.
Each time lets you look at things differently. Vancouver Tech Journal editor Nathan Caddell takes two passes over each article, “once for story and whether it makes sense, and a second time for grammar and spelling stuff.” Nate Martins similarly edits twice, reading “one for correctness (‘am I making sense?’) then another for polish (‘do I sound good?’).” Deb Tennen takes a pass for each part of the text. “Click all the links first; then proofread the subheaders; then read the first sentence of each section; and so on,” says Tennen. “Batch proofread!”
Part of it’s in changing your mindset, something Everybody Writes author Ann Handley does by imagining a reader. As you’re reworking your text, “Step into her shoes,” says Handley of her imaginary reader. “Slip on her skin. See through her eyes.”
“I'm always asking myself if this particular sentence or paragraph or point makes sense to the reader,” says Melanie Pinola, echoing Handley’s advice. “I try to read the piece from someone else’s point of view.”
It’s partly in the repetition, partly in changed focus. By the time you’re on the third or fourth reading, nothing will have escaped your attention.
Make a list of rules, check them all.
Only, you’re still the person who wrote the words. You’ve got your standard hangups, things you write that sound fine to your ear but aren’t. Spellcheck might not catch if you used affect for the wrong effect.
So Deb Tennen made a list of things she’s tired of seeing in her writing to double-check, things like “‘be sure’ and ‘make sure’” and other words she uses too often. Then she’ll search for each offending word or phrase, and eliminate them before publication.
Rochi Zalani has an even more detailed list. Every bit of feedback on her writing goes in a list of “common writing crutches”—everything from spelling and grammar mistakes to stylistic consistencies like “like writing a number below ten instead of spelling it out.”
Make a list of your hangups. Then in one of your proofreading rounds, run through the list and see if you missed anything. Re-read with a purpose to fix things you’ve fixed before, to let every mistake of the past improve today’s writing.
Hire a robot.
Spellcheck feels like the lazy way out. Why proofread when you could instead copy your text into Grammarly, Hemingway Editor, or another style-checking tool, add all their recommendations, and call it a day?
That’d be a terrible idea. The robots will likely make some terrible recommendations, and your writing might be worse off for heeding their advice. But it’d also be a terrible idea to skip spellcheckers entirely. They’re also your best bet to catch pesky problems your eyes would otherwise ignore.
So use Grammarly, advises Deb Tennen, “but don't accept everything it says. It's wrong half the time and another 25% of the time it de-voices your writing.” The magic is in what it does catch.
Don’t accept everything; read your sentence in context and make sure the suggestion makes sense. If it doesn’t, say no. “It’s enormously satisfying to be confident enough in your writing to reject a robot’s fixes,” says Ann Handley.
And in the process of copying your work into yet another app, you might again notice things to change that the robot overlooked.
Get a second opinion.
That’s as far as you can go. Beyond this point, you need a friend. A foe. Anyone who can read your work and tell you no.
“Always, always, get people besides yourself to check it,” says Matt Gemmell. “The writer sees what they think they wrote, not what’s actually there.”
Everyone asks someone different. “I ask people I trust to read it over,” says Melanie Pinola. “Sometimes it's a colleague. Sometimes it's my daughter.” Arpit Choudhury gets his wife to re-read his work. Peter Preston’s team has a “Slack channel just for proofreading requests.” For Justin Pot, “the most important thing is working with an editor I trust.”
Ann Handley agrees: “All writers need an editor,” she says. “Especially the best ones.”
So get someone who will be ruthless, who will read between the lines and tell you the truth. Someone who will spot not only the missing punctuation but also where you dropped the plot-line and trailed off without finishing your thoughts. Someone who will tell you if things aren’t working, if the idea’s good but there’s got to be a better way to say it.
“It takes a special kind of relationship with someone for them to feel comfortable telling you an idea needs to change or get cut,” says Michael Metts, “but those are the people I need in my life.”
Maybe one’s not enough, either. Perhaps you need someone close to read the first draft, a colleague to add thoughts to your next take, an editor to push the final draft over the finish line, and a reader who will write in days later to share something that everyone else overlooked. It just might take a village.
So you’ll write.
Then you’ll wait. Switch things up. Read again and again. Change your perspective, check your list, consult your bot.
Then it’s off to another reader, and another, and another, in that continuous pursuit of the approximation of perfection.
Header photo by Tamanna Rumee via Unsplash.
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