Editing and Proofreading Your Own Work

Editing and proofreading your own work is difficult. Even experienced writers struggle with it, because it’s hard to see the issues or errors in our own work—especially if it’s something we’ve worked on for months or years.

As my Twitter colleagues Karen Conlin, Mededitor, and others often remind us, “SpellCheck cannot save you.” (See hashtagged tweets here.) When editing others’ work, I’ve noticed “undeserved” when “underserved” was correct, or “Czech Republic” when—because of the time period being discussed—”Czechoslovakia” was right. I’ve also caught spacing or font color issues that the writers missed. That said, I won’t be going back to my own published writing to find what I missed in the proofing stage. We’ll leave well enough alone.

As much as I’d like every writer needing help to hire someone like me, I’ll take my head out of the clouds and give some advice on doing your own quality control. This can be difficult work, especially if you’re on the clock or dealing with a manuscript you’ve had for a long time. But it’s possible to improve your self-editing or -proofreading skills, such as by printing it out or taking breaks as the linked article suggests.

I’ve seen and gotten a lot of advice over the years, and I talk about this often with friends, clients, and former students. Here are some tips for handling your own quality control:

  1. Remember that writing and editing use different parts of your brain. It’s hard to do one when trying to do the other. Keep them separate as much as possible. I had students struggle when trying to write and then immediately self-edit; things went more smoothly once I told them to separate the activities. The same goes for editing and proofreading; keep them separate to do your best work.
  2. Allow as much time as you can to do the work. As we sometimes joke, the quickest way to spot a typo can be to hit SEND, so make sure what you’re sending is as correct as it can be.
  3. Slow down your reading as much as possible. Focus on how each word moves to the next one. If it helps, use a metronome app or tap your foot to get into a slow, purposeful rhythm. Keep following the rhythm.
  4. Focus your view as much as you can. MS Word and other programs have viewing options to remove menus, buttons, and other bells and whistles. Eliminate things that can distract your eyes from the text.
  5. Read the material out loud. It’s easier to catch your own errors and problem passages or constructions this way. If your sentences are too long or descriptive, you’ll find yourself losing focus or having to take breaths. If you have an error Spellcheck missed, it’s easier to catch it when you’re saying defiantly when you know that definitely is right.
  6. Disrupt your reading flow however you can. When editing, read your paragraphs out of order. When proofreading, go to the end and read your sentences in reverse order. Trick your brain into focusing sharply on the sentences and words, instead of just reading them in the intended order.

And, if it helps soothe your writer’s ego when revising your own work, remember that we editors need help with our work too.

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Have an idea for another post on writing or editing topics? Let me know.

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