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Tips For Proofreading Your Own Work

After recently reading an old document I thought to be quite well-written, I was surprised to find the author of the piece was me. 
 
The reason for my surprise was my writing style has changed dramatically since that time and I believe I don't write anywhere near as well now.

While I could attribute the loss of quality to getting a little bit older and perhaps eating out of aluminum saucepans too often; the Internet, or more accurately, the way I approach content development and online publishing, is the culprit. 
   

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Before I would distribute a document prior to 2000, there were all sorts of checks I would perform before anyone else would see it. Over time, those checks have been whittled away for various reasons, none of them particularly good. I've gone from offering restaurant-quality fare, to more of a McDonalds approach.
 
I've been going over a few articles published since I started getting into the web in a big way and it's been a bit of a shock to see glaring errors I really don't know how I missed.
 
Doing your own proofreading/copyediting is risky at the best of times, but it's certainly possible if you go further than just quickly reading over what you have written before hitting the submit button. Measure twice, cut once as the old saying goes. 

With this in mind, I have decided it's time to get back to basics in the hope I can recapture the writing skills I once had. 

As part of this effort, I've dug back through my own dusty memories and also picked up a few tips from around the web on how to proofread your own work when time is limited - I hope you find these useful.

Spell check and grammar check tools

Back in the day, I despised these tools as I felt they made people lazy. I now use them regularly, but spelling and grammar checkers should only be one part of your copyediting and proofreading strategy - a starting point.

Distraction-free environment

While writing this article, I've been distracted 4 times; so I know there will be errors. If I'm distracted 4 times while proofreading it, chances are many of those errors will make it to the live version. 
 
If you find yourself distracted while proofreading, start from the beginning unless you're absolutely sure you can pick up from where you left off. 
 
In some cases, this could mean you read the same block of text a dozen times and that will also impact on what you pick up, so it's better to avoid the situation in the first place. Go and hunker down in the bathroom if need be to find a bit of peace :).

Read the piece back to yourself out loud

This can be particularly useful in picking up errors in relation to punctuation - e.g., a comma or a hyphen where one shouldn't be.

Checking numbers

This is an absolute must; particularly for any marketing campaign content and sales copy. An expensive campaign could be in ruins if just one digit in a telephone number is incorrect or a 0 is missing from a price.

Remove superfluous text 

I certainly agree a good writer is one who can clearly communicate a message in as few words as possible, but when it comes to copy for the web, explaining the same thing in different ways using different terms can be beneficial at times; for example, attracting the attention of search engines. 

It's not so good for holding reader interest, so if you're saying the same thing throughout your article in fifteen different ways, determine the repetitive sentences containing the most important terms and phrases you want to keep and ditch the rest.

Shorten sentences

Long sentences are something I'm particularly guilty of. I'll stretch out a sentence with commas, semi-colons and dashes. This can be a little exhausting for the reader, so it's best to break down longer sentences into two or three, without making it read in a stop-start fashion (which can be equally as annoying).

Print out the document

It's not a particularly earth-friendly practice, but printing out a document and reading the hard copy may reveal errors you may miss in the on-screen version.

Proofread different on-screen versions

I usually write articles in Notepad now, proofread that copy and then transfer the text over into the template of whatever site I'm working on. The change in font and display "freshens" the article, making it easier to proofread a second (or third) time.
   

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Block out past the current line

As the author of the article, we'll tend to jump ahead when reading it as we know what has been written. This is where the brain plays tricks, "seeing" words that should be there that aren't, or totally glossing over errors. 
 
Placing a sheet of paper over content past the current line we're reading (or positioning the line just above the bottom of the screen) can help prevent this.

Know your weaknesses

Keep a list of common grammatical mistakes, typos and misspellings you make and refer to the list when proofreading. For example, a common one for me is the incorrect usage of "its" and "it's". I shudder when I see these words used incorrectly in someone else's work, so I'm damned if I know why I still make that mistake so often myself. However, knowing that I do means it's something I continually watch for.

Take a break

When writing for the web, we don't always have the luxury of letting a document sit for a day or two before publishing - often it needs to go up as soon as possible. Even closing the document for just 5 minutes, doing something else and then coming back to it can provide somewhat of a fresh view that may help pick up errors previously missed.

The above proofreading and copy-editing tips are most useful for single page articles. For multi-page and multi-section documents, you'll need to pay attention to many more issues such as page numbering, footers and header content and accuracy of your table of contents.

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
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