Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Proofreading tips

Proofreading is one of the most essential and least welcome parts of writing.  It comes at the end after all the creating, revising, rewriting and general tinkering.  This is the point where you're looking for errors, making those final tweaks, and giving your manuscript that final polish before pushing it out the door.  It's also maddeningly boring because it involves going over every page line by line, word by word, and punctuation mark by punctuation mark.  It requires that final fact check, that final update, and all the thousand and one little things that need to fixed.  It's also nerve wracking because there's always the fear that you'll find some last-minute mistake that requires a massive rewrite (Wait a minute, Carstairs was in Hong Kong.  He couldn't be in Surrey by lunchtime).

Proof reading can be a miserable chore or a tolerable job depending on how you approach it.  One of the simplest ways of making things easier is by taking proper care during the writing.  Having a solid knowledge of spelling, grammar, and punctuation means fewer mistakes made and fewer to correct.  Also, having a good style guide on hand can be a great help.  One of the most frustrating parts of proofreading is that sometimes there's more than one way to spell a word or use a punctuation mark, so consistency can be a real headache.  A good style guide can go a long way toward avoiding a lot of backtracking and correction later on.

By the same token, having reference works such as dictionaries and thesauruses close at hand can be a great help.  Thanks to the Internet, these don't even have to be books, but rather gadgets or apps that you can use at a seconds notice.  These can even include translator applications to help with those occasional foreign phrases that you want to make sure you're using correctly.

Sadly, the digital age has made my favourite editing tool, the blue pencil, obsolete, but there are others to replace it.  Today, the tool to help with proofreading has to be a good word processing programme such as Word or Open Office Writer.  What you need is one with a Track Changes function as well as tools such as Insert Comment, Spell Check, Grammar Check, and Find/Replace.  If your processor has a split screen function so that you can look at one part of the document while working on another, so much the better.  With these, you can automate a lot of the tasks of proofreading and make corrections throughout the document with the click of a mouse instead of laboriously doing them yourself.  Bear in mind, however, that these tools are just that; tools.  They won't catch a word that is properly spelled, but still the wrong word, nor will they tell you if a sentence makes sense.  For that you still need the Mark I Eyeball and a brain.

Perhaps the best advice for proofreading is to remember that it requires a great deal of concentration.  You need to not only read every word, but be aware of what you are reading.  This requires a lot of effort and a person cannot maintain that level of focus for very long, so remember to budget as much time as you can afford for proofing.  Ideally, you shouldn't try to proofread for more than a couple of hours before taking a break and recognise that you may only get so many pages done in one day.  Trying to rush the job just means missing mistakes and having to start all over again, so the best thing to do is to take it slow and keep your mind fresh and your eye sharp.

Here's a list of essential references for starting out:

  • AP Style
    •  The standard guide to journalism writing and, when you understand its limitations, an excellent work to have at hand.
  • Chicago Manual of Style
    •  The proofreader's friend.  A great tool, if a bit daunting the first time you dip into the print version.
  • The King's English
    •  Hard-hitting work on English usage that clears up many ambiguities and because it was written before the days of Political Correctness, it puts language before party orthodoxy.
  • Strunk and White's Elements of Style
    •  The classic, concise work on how to write clearly.
  • Merriam Webster Dictionary
    • Standard collegiate dictionary of Amreican English.  A bit easier to use that the Oxford English, which remains the heavy artillery.
  • Thesaurus
    • The big guns are in Roget's (get a print edition is you can).  If you're in a hurry, the more accessible thesaurus at Merriam Webster online edition will do.

1 comment:

  1. David,

    Being an indexer/editor/proofreader, I agree with everything that you said. I especially like the reference to the "Mark I Eyeball and a brain".

    I have proofread both company websites and promotional brochures, and I am staggered at the number of spelling and grammar errors that I have found.

    I try and tell the companies concerned that having a sloppy website and promotional materials damages their "brand", and may stop them getting potential clients.