Guide to Successful Proofreading

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editingProofreading a document can be a challenging assignment for many people. But proofreading your own writing can be downright impossible since we often read what we meant to write, and not what we actually wrote.

How can you find mistakes in your writing? Here are some helpful tips you can use the next time you’re proofreading your own work—or the work of someone else.

Use Spell Check and Grammar Check

Even though these features won’t catch every mistake, they’re a quick and easy way to catch common mistakes. And if they catch even one error, they’ve done their job.

Find your Best Medium

Some people can only proofread using a printed copy, while others do just fine reading on a screen. Try both methods and see which works best for you.

Look for Misused Homonyms

Using the incorrect word can make you appear unprofessional and uneducated, thereby discrediting your writing. Some of the most commonly misused homonyms are:

  • accept/except
  • capitol/capital
  • elicit/illicit
  • emigrate/immigrate
  • ensure/assure/insure
  • your/you’re
  • affect/effect
  • its/it’s
  • they’re/their/there
  • principal/principle
  • complement/compliment
  • passed/past

Check for Subject/Verb Disagreement

Make sure your subject and verb agree—both are singular or both are plural.

  • Incorrect: She play with dolls.
  • Correct: She plays with dolls.

Eliminate any Antecedent/Pronoun Disagreements

Your antecedent and pronoun should agree in person, number, and gender.

  • Incorrect: My sister gave me their doll.
  • Correct: My sister gave me her doll.

Look for Sentence Fragments

A sentence fragment is a group of words that doesn’t express a complete thought. Usually, sentence fragments are missing a noun or a verb.  Sentence fragments, however, can be acceptable when used for effect or to draw attention to a particular phrase.

Define your Acronyms

The first time a term appears in your document, spell it out completely and include the acronym in parentheses. From that point on, you can just use the acronym.

Avoid Passive Voice

Passive voice occurs when the object of an action becomes the subject of a sentence.

  • Passive Voice: The king was defeated by our army.
  • Active Voice: Our army defeated the king.

Passive voice tends to be awkward and unclear. When possible, use active voice.

Read Backwards

Grammar Girl suggests reading your document backwards, allowing you to see errors that you likely would have missed.

Take a Break

If there’s time, let the document sit for a few days, or even a few hours. Viewing your document with a fresh set of eyes can help you find mistakes you may have otherwise missed.

Look for Mistakes One at a Time

If your document is relatively short, look for one problem at a time. For example, first check capitalization, then check punctuation, then check contractions.

Be Vocal

Read the document aloud. Better yet, have someone else read it to you. While this won’t catch some mistakes, such as misspellings or misused homonyms, you’ll be able to hear whether your document has appropriate structure and transitions.

Make a List and Check it Twice

Make a checklist of your most common mistakes. This is especially helpful if you’re short on time—you can use the checklist to review the document quickly.

Trick your Brain

Temporarily change the appearance of your document—font, type and size, margins, line spacing, etc. It will look like a different document, allowing you to proofread it impartially.