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Tips for Proofreaders

Updated on December 10, 2016

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Mark Twain hadn't much patience for proofreaders. "In the first place God made idiots," he wrote. "That was for practice. Then he made proof-readers." Apparently Twain had encountered all too many instances where mistakes and typographical errors escaped notice of hired proofreaders and entered newspaper, magazine and even book publications to the embarrassment of both publisher and author.

One wonders how much time the writer devoted to training and instructing proofreaders under his province so they could excel in their purpose. Had he considered the situation more carefully, perhaps he might have proposed 10 or a dozen tips for their edification. Perhaps they would have run something like this:

Tip #1

When proofreading, it helps to have another person "hold copy." One will have the original work and one a transcribed copy or both will have a transcribed copy. One will read the work aloud, while the other reads it silently. In this way, when one proofreader overlooks an error, the other surely will notice it. The one reading aloud should not possess a stupefying characteristic of oration, as so prevalent in political circles, lest the silent reader fall asleep.

Tip #2

If proofreading alone an article or story composed on a computer or word processor, print out a copy of the work and read the printed version for possible errors. The printed version permits proofreading in a more relaxed manner than peering into a flickering screen. Besides, no one has yet invented a device with which a reader can place those enigmatic proofreader marks on a word processing machine. Double check that your machine has not somehow managed to translate the work into some foreign language, unless, of course, you happen to live in a foreign country.

Improve your writing through diligent proofreading.

Tip #3

If you frequently proofread a particular writer's work (perhaps your own, although ideally someone else should enjoy the pleasure), make note of often repeated mistakes. You likely will encounter them again and again. Keep this compilation of frequent errors at hand when next proofreading for that writer. If nothing else, you should find it an amusing undertaking.

Tip #4

If you really wish to plunge deeply into a proofreading exercise, avoid proofing for every type of mistake at once. Instead proof for spelling, then for proper word usage, then for missing or multiple spacings between words and so on.

Tip #5

Certainty in a proofreader, though rare, can prove dangerous. If you stumble upon a word you feel the writer has spelled wrong, take time to double check the spelling. Make sure that you are right — or, perish the thought, wrong. Most proofreader's keep at hand one of Noah Webster's helpful volumes; you should be one of them. Noah Webster? Innocent soul; he felt the world would benefit by knowing the spelling, meaning and origination of words.

Tip #6

Among the most troublesome type of error committed by a writer, whether for magazine, newspaper or blogosphere, misspelling a person's name ranks right alongside the egregiousness of forgetting the writer's beloved motherinlaw's birthday. As proofreader, endeavor to protect the writer from the consequences of, perhaps, featuring the Reverand Jason Blimpster in a story about a rape actually committed by Jack Blameley. Jack might find it delightful but not the Reverend's wife. Check and double check names!

Tip #7

After having proofread the body of the text and marked it for errors, briefly scan the article or story to ascertain its significance. Compare the content or theme of the text with the message contained in the headline or title. The one should bear at least a speaking relationship to the other.

Tip #8

Should you come across a word for which you cannot immediately verify the correct spelling, highlight it by circling it or passing a yellow felt tip marker through it. This has the effect of drawing attention to the suspect word for later analysis. Be aware that a writer sometimes will purposely mangle a word for some supposed literary effect and will want it spelled that way in print; either that or he or she has it in for proofreaders.

Tip #9

An important facility to develop, concentration, requires avoiding distractions that sidetrack the proofreader from the task at hand: finding and marking mistakes. Turn off or otherwise disable nearby telephones and draw the blinds against outside scenic diversions. If unable to quiet a particularly loquacious co-worker, employ the use of industrial strength ear plugs. In your ears!

Proofreader's Tool
Proofreader's Tool

Tip #10

In addition to misspelled words, the proofreader must keep an eye peeled for misplaced or missing commas, semi-colons, colons, apostrophes and periods, for capitalized words, for precision in numbers and for those pesky homonyms, words that sound or spell the same but have different meanings. For invaluable help sorting out these and other essentials of writing, visit your used book store or library and buy or borrow a copy of "The Elements Of Style" by William Strunk, Jr. Following Strunk's advice will not only make you a better proofreader but a better writer as well.


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