Six top tips for proofreading perfection

Posted on 7 March 2014 by Lucy Gregory

Imagine this situation: you’ve spent months working on a project; the report’s finalised, the cover email written. Client and boss are copied in along with the whole team. You press send and it’s out there. Done.

Feeling relieved and rather self-satisfied you pick up a hard copy and have a final flick through, admiring your handiwork. But wait. Oh my god. It can’t be. Tell me it’s not true. There’s a typo on page 2. Another on page 3. And the numbering’s gone funny on page 13. Noooooooooooooooo!

I bet you don’t have to imagine that situation. I bet you’re remembering the last time something similar happened to you.

And that’s because it happens to all of us. Quite often. In fact, I was hauled over the coals by my business partner earlier this week for sending an email (or two) with typos. I was hugely embarrassed; after all, I’m the one telling everyone how to do this business writing thing properly.

In my (and everyone else’s) defence, I don’t think we’re more careless than we used to be. We’re just writing more. Instead of sending three letters a week, we send thirty emails a day – at least. So there’s more chance for a mistake to slip in.

Excuses aside, it’s still unprofessional and embarrassing. So what can we do about it? Is there a guaranteed way to spot those pesky typos and muddled sentences (you know, the ones you get from copying and pasting half a sentence into another, leaving a rogue word behind)?

Proofreading is the answer.

There’s no magic trick to it. But to do it properly takes a little time and discipline. You might decide short emails aren’t worth the investment, but take the risk with your eyes open.

Six-step proofreading guide


Proofreading step 1 – Print out your document

Whether it’s a 200-page report or the latest marketing brochure, print it out. It’s much easier to spot mistakes on paper than on screen.

Then grab a red pen and make corrections on your paper copy.

Proofreading step 2 – Carry out a sanity check

Before you start looking for typos, read your printed document all the way through one final time.

Are your points crystal clear? Could any of your sentences be misinterpreted? Once you’re happy with the content, it’s time to start proofing.

Proofreading step 3 – Read every word separately

When you read, your brain fills in the gaps and corrects mistakes automatically. So enrevoye shuold be albe to ursedatnnd tihs senetnce eevn tughoh the ltetres are scblremad.

While this is all very interesting, it makes spotting typos quite difficult. The way to overcome your brain’s autocorrect is to prevent yourself from reading ahead.

Take a ruler or a piece of paper and place it under each line of text. Then take a pen and point at every word, one by one. As you point at each word, read it out loud (or under your breath).

This forces you to concentrate on each word individually. Hopefully, your colleagues won’t think you’ve completely lost the plot.

Proofreading step 4 – Go backwards

Once you get to the end of your document, start again. This time, start from the end of the document. You can either work backwards sentence-by-sentence or word-by-word. (No, I don’t mean read your words backwards. That would be silly.) This is the hardest bit. It’s painstaking and boring, but it’s worth it.

Proofreading step 5 – Type up your corrections

Once you’ve finished your proofread, correct your document on screen. Then print the document again and check it one last time.

Proofreading step 6 – Give it to a colleague

You’ve read the document a million times, you’ve proofed it thoroughly and you’re convinced it’s perfect. There’ll still be one typo you haven’t spotted. A fresh pair of eyes will find it in an instant.

So there you have it: six steps to mistake-free documents.