How do you force yourself to slow down and take your time when proofing?
April 28, 2011 4:53 PM   Subscribe

How do you force yourself to slow down and take your time when proofing?

A situation recently came up at work where it is apparent that I dropped the proofreading ball, so to speak.

I'm at a high level in our organization; somewhere just below the owners. I used to pride myself on grammar skills and writing in general, but I find myself making more mistakes lately.

It's not that I don't care, because I do. I care about the quality of my work, and, to be frank, even if I didn't, I care about not getting in trouble. Proofing is not my primary responsibility, but I am expected to do a fair amount of it.

My boss and I proofed a letter, but mistakes got through. Now, apparently, the quality of my work, and possibly my value to the company is in question. She signed off on the letter, and some of the mistakes were her responsibility to correct (As in, we agreed on the edits, and she failed to make them before she sent the final draft to the clients). We're talking about 4 typos in a 6 page document, which isn't acceptable. Two of them were missed by my boss, but neither she nor I saw the other two. I don't know for sure that my job is on the line, but I feel like it could be if I don't get better at this.

So, hive mind, how do I get better at it?

I've heard tricks like read the document backwards, but that never seems to work. I have a good grasp on grammar, but I don't see the mistakes when I'm proofreading. Point out to me that there's something wrong in a line, and I can tell you what it is and how to correct it. But I don't spot these errors "in the wild."

Slightly mitigating factors: the initial draft from the big bosses was atrocious, and the one we returned was vastly improved. There was a deadline issue as I wasn't given much time to review and rewrite, but that's a feeble excuse. If I had said "I need more time to proof this," I could have had it. I honestly thought it was perfect when I read it back and gave the OK. Oh, and none of these mistakes were things that spell check would catch.

How do I become better at proofreading?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (43 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Read it out loud. Seriously. Every time I do this, I say to myself "omg this is taking FOREVER why do I even bother," and then every time I find some tiny little thing I missed. Reading it out loud forces you to slow down, and forces your eye to see every word and pause, rather than letting your brain fill in the gaps.
posted by phunniemee at 4:57 PM on April 28, 2011 [12 favorites]

Read twice - once for message and content, once for grammar and details, with at least a few hours between the first and second read. If possible, do the second read a day later.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:05 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding 'read aloud' -- it's still at the heart of the Oxbridge tutorial system for good reason.
posted by holgate at 5:06 PM on April 28, 2011

Change the font and size of the letters and perhaps the size of the margins and print it out.
posted by sammyo at 5:07 PM on April 28, 2011

If perfection is expected, you need more readers, and more time. You need enough time away from the messy first-draft so you can really see the revised version with fresh eyes. And when you think it's clean, recruit anyone you can find to give it a read. Take note of what they catch, and you'll be more likely to see it next time.

But honestly, perfection is not a realistic goal when time is short and you're the only editor. If the boss can't be trusted to accurately make corrections, someone needs to do it for her, and someone else should check it when it's done. Built redundant systems so that it doesn't fall apart when any one person has tired eyes or is off their game.
posted by libraryhead at 5:09 PM on April 28, 2011 [6 favorites]

I sometimes force myself to read things backwards once I've given it at least one (preferably two) read0-hroughs -- so that way the content flow is totally disrupted and I'm only looking at words as words (i.e., as units of letters that are supposed to go a certain way), if that makes sense.

I also -- if there's the luxury of time, which often there isn't -- will set something aside for a few hours or a day after I've proofread it at least once (preferably twice) and then look at it at a very metalevel. That is, I'll look at the whole page as a page before I actually start reading it again and see what jumps out at me. Sometimes out of the corner of my eye I will see a word that suddenly registers as not-quite-right in terms of the order of letters, for example -- like a little alarm will go off that says "I know that word is supposed to be 'persuasive' but something's not... quite... right." It's surprising the typos and little punctuation mistakes that will present themselves that way.

And yes, always read a hard copy whenever possible. If someone is pressing you to read it on-screen only because RUSH RUSH RUSH RUSH HURRY UP BE SNAPPY BUT BE PERFECT, tell them that reading quickly on screen is a great way to almost guarantee that mistakes will get through.
posted by scody at 5:10 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

But honestly, perfection is not a realistic goal when time is short and you're the only editor.

I completely agree.

Here is a question I wrote a few years ago on the topic and as you can see, I was super stressed when I wrote the question, and the question itself has a ton of grammar issues in it. (For me personally, seeing this question a few days later helped me see how stressed I was in general and that I needed therapy, but I definitely don't think that's your issue.) But demanding perfection on a short timeline = utter madness, and it seems to be the way the work world is going. The best advice I can give, if you can't take more time, is reading backwards, reading aloud, and taking breaks. Don't beat yourself up about it. The human brain just doesn't work that way -- reading things over and over to proof them is just crazy. When I worked as a copywriter we worked in a team of three, and we would give each other our copy to proof before we posted it online.
posted by sweetkid at 5:17 PM on April 28, 2011

Print it out. Read it aloud, while pacing around the office. Then sit down and read it again with pen in hand.
posted by deludingmyself at 5:18 PM on April 28, 2011

Seconding reading things backwards. It takes everything out of context: thus, your mind cannot "fill in" the mistakes.
posted by AlliKat75 at 5:19 PM on April 28, 2011

Never, ever proofread on the screen. Print out a version of every draft, and make sure your boss does, too (if you have to, print out a draft and hand it to her, and ask for it back with edits). Yes, it's unkind to trees. It makes a substantial difference, though.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:20 PM on April 28, 2011 [9 favorites]

I'm not doing proofing now, but in the past I've used a text-to-speech tool and listened to that speak the document out loud while I read along with it. Having the text reader set to a fairly high speed helped.

I don't remember what tool I used, but I think most operating systems have text-to-speech built in now. I'm certain that what I used was free, so maybe it was part of the OS.
posted by anadem at 5:24 PM on April 28, 2011

Read things aloud. Also, for spelling, read backwards.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:33 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you proofread on-screen, use the "one-word-at-a-time" movement keys, while reading aloud. (In Word, that's Crtl-left arrow and Ctrl-right arrow)
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:43 PM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Read it out loud. It seriously works.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:43 PM on April 28, 2011

Read it upside down.
posted by skyl1n3 at 5:51 PM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've found that time and not being the original author can make a huge difference for me, thus I'm never the only proof-reader of my own works. Disassociating yourself from the actual content is also critical, but difficult (especially if you're the author). I've also developed a different reading style for proofreading, one that's much slower, non-sequential (not backwards, just not in the intended order) and almost rhythmic. I guess it's like reading aloud, in your head. I have a really strong auditory memory tho, so pretty much everything I read seems like it's being spoken in my head.
posted by fiercekitten at 5:52 PM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Two tricks I use:
Have the computer speak it.
Work backwards through the text sentence by sentence on paper. Tick off each sentence you do.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:04 PM on April 28, 2011

Inlike to print it out and then stand up and go over it away from my desk. I have a filing cabinet I can lean on which works great. If I'm at my desk, I tend to hurry and get distracted too easily by incoming emails and the like. Also, take a few deep breaths and go into a zen proofing zone to get yourself to slow down.
posted by dawkins_7 at 6:09 PM on April 28, 2011

I do proofreading/editing all the time. I never, never rely on my own proofreading skills when it comes to my own work. There's nothing wrong with asking for a second pair of trustworthy eyes, especially if, say, a mass printing and a lot of expense is involved. Even paying a freelance editor to proof it by the page or by the hour can be worth it if it gives you peace of mind.
posted by tully_monster at 6:15 PM on April 28, 2011

I have to print something out to really proofread, and ideally I do so double-spaced so that I can make adequate notes on the document.

I'm pretty good at catching things on the first pass on a screen, but if I need to be perfect, I print the damn thing out.

So then I make the changes, then I print it out again and read through it to make sure that it's really correct. If I have the time, I'll read it backwards too. If I have to make any changes, I make 'em, then print it out again, and read it again.

I used to joke that copy editors got into publishing because they hate trees. I still wish I had a better system for doing it on the screen, but I miss stuff.
posted by klangklangston at 6:24 PM on April 28, 2011

I second the reading backwards method. You don't really "read" every word backwards, you simply scan and parse each paragraph of the document from bottom to top.

This has saved me endless grief in countless iterations of multitudinously track-changed version-scrambled draft legal agreements at my present job. I learned it as a trick of the trade from a manager at another big pharmaco when I worked in clinical audits; he learned it from his profs.

And yes, you have to print stuff out. editors (and especially legal departments) are hell on trees. I hate it but what can you do? you can't proof onscreen, it's just not possible.
posted by lonefrontranger at 6:27 PM on April 28, 2011

1. Copy the document and do a search and replace for "." and replace it with "." + 2-3 paragraph marks, so each line is visually separate from every other line.

2. Cut a window of 4-6 words in an index card and scan the document with it.

Also, your boss sounds like someone it would be nice not to work for.
posted by mecran01 at 6:48 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and Whitesmoke might catch a few errors that Word won't pick up. Don't rely exclusively on it.
posted by mecran01 at 6:49 PM on April 28, 2011

I can't favorite PhoBWanKenobi hard enough. Five years working for print papers, and we print-proofed every single page. At least twice. Oh god, the reams of paper we went through.

But also: no one proofed a page that they themselves laid out. You often can't catch your own mistakes. Print it out, hand it to a neutral party, make changes, repeat until you're certain.
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 6:51 PM on April 28, 2011

If I had said "I need more time to proof this," I could have had it. I honestly thought it was perfect when I read it back and gave the OK.

Yup, this is pretty common. It looks perfect to your eyes, because your eyes (well, the brain they're connected to) know exactly what you intended to write. For me, almost every time the answer is "Take more time."

Print out a copy, set it aside, and let [unit of time] elapse while you do something else. Here, [unit of time] might be an hour or a day or a week, whatever fits your deadline and schedule. For me, the longer I can set it aside, the better my proofreading will be. (Obviously there's a limit to this over the long term: a day is better than an hour, but a year isn't better than two weeks.)

The "something else" is crucial to the process. Don't rephrase the document in your head. Don't think about the document at all if you can avoid it. You're trying to approach it with fresh eyes.

Then I read the document aloud, slowly and clearly, as if I were addressing an audience. When I'm particularly careful, I hold the paper upside-down and read from that, which slows me even further and gives me time to actually read each word on its own. But neither of those tricks is as helpful as simply taking a break from the document, putting it aside, and revisiting it later.

Anything that removes context and familiarity is helpful, because that helps you see clearly what you actually wrote, not what you intended.

When I really cannot take more time, I ask someone else (someone who has not helped to write the document) to read it over. They'll be able to pick up obvious errors, but they may also ask "Is [blah] really what you mean?" My husband and I don't write together but we proof each other's writing all the time and frequently pick up errors, little and big.
posted by Elsa at 6:55 PM on April 28, 2011

Nthing the necessity of reading it on paper and on screen. My editing department also required that at least two people read everything.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:05 PM on April 28, 2011

When I have to proof multiple drafts of the same thing—which is pretty much all the time—what I do is with each subsequent draft or round of proofreading, I read the document all the way through again in full, then go back through checking it against the changes that should've been and/or may have otherwise been made the previous round, then go back through and double-check all of the other details around the edges, so to speak, including page numbers, headers, footers, captions, etc. It's sort of like a progressive scan, with differing levels of detail... But yeah, I find that if I skip one of the "scans" on any given round, mistakes often slip through. So I basically have a mental (or written—I started off with one on a Post-it, actually) checklist of types or sets of things to look for at each stage of certain types of documents, and I always force myself to stick to the program, because when I don't, disaster can strike.

Anyway, having been through a proofreading/fact-checking disaster myself recently when I didn't follow my own "rules," I understand what you're going through. Sometimes it can be really hard just to slow down. Since my recent gaffe, I've pledged not to stay extra-late if I can help it, not to work on things out of the office if I can help it (being in the right environment can be crucial to concentration, especially in processes with many steps), and not to work on the weekend if at all possible (same deal). Things may not get done early, but they'll get done right, and be right on time.
posted by limeonaire at 7:18 PM on April 28, 2011

It can be helpful to print it out in a dramatically different font, maybe a little larger. Your eyes aren't used to this version, so they catch different things. You can even try a font so hideous or obnoxious that your eyes get stuck on things and start noticing small details.
posted by bassjump at 7:19 PM on April 28, 2011

Cut a slot in a piece of paper one line high, and the full width of the text line. Read the document through the slot, line by line. It removes all context and distractions. Also, what skyl1n3 said.
posted by scruss at 7:29 PM on April 28, 2011

In addition to many of the above (I'm a big fan of backwards and of saving the immediately prior draft to check error correction), it's important to read at least once for sense, and once where you read each sentence in isolation, paying NO attention to its sense or meaning, looking ONLY for errors (spelling, verb tense, etc.).

I have such vivid memories of proofreading dozens of golf stories sentence-at-a-time which, since I cared to little about golf, was not actually very different from reading them all at once for meaning. :) It was a very disjointed, dull, slow way of reading, but you catch a lot more mistakes when you refuse to read for meaning.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:32 PM on April 28, 2011

I agree that it's impossible to see your own mistakes sometimes. I've had the exact same problem as you and reading my documents upside down did a world of good.
posted by triggerfinger at 7:47 PM on April 28, 2011

Read it with fresh eyes - as in, the next day (if you can), after you have rest/have forgotten the little details of the document. I also recommend reading it outloud. Perhaps you need a grammar refresher, too. There are wonderful little handbooks you can get for this purpose. If they were simply typos, then you really do need to look at it with fresh eyes (or get someone else to look!).
posted by sunnychef88 at 8:29 PM on April 28, 2011

It's been many years, but at one time I regularly used the word processor's grammar checker as a supplement to manual proofing. Many false positives, but often it would identify a couple of real problems every few pages. Just tried it using MS word 2007; didn't seem to notice missed periods and other egregious errors- maybe not configured properly. Googling "grammar checkers" I see lots of hits; perhaps there is something useful out there.
posted by Kevin S at 9:11 PM on April 28, 2011

If you're at a "high level" in your organisation, assuming there's more than three of you in it, then delegate the donkey work to someone trustworthy lower down. Save yourself for reading through the finished document for anything glaring. Also, if your boss signed off on it then she's got no business blaming you for the occasional cock up, a good boss takes responsibility rather than passing the buck. Nobody gets sacked for a couple of spelling mistakes though, so if you're having problems find what the issue really is.
posted by joannemullen at 11:31 PM on April 28, 2011

If it needs to be perfect (and the document is rather small - i.e. not hundreds of pages) you print it out and mark every single word as you read it.

It takes surprisingly less time than you think and that way you actually make sure you read every single word.
posted by mleigh at 1:24 AM on April 29, 2011

DPCustomMono2 is an amazingly ugly font intended to help proofreaders catch errors in OCR output, but I find it helps with normal proofing as well. The fact that it doesn't look like you want the finished document to look reminds you that you're supposed to be looking at every word, not just reading what you think is there.
posted by Lebannen at 1:47 AM on April 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a news editor for a daily paper. I print out pages and put a ruler under each line of copy as I read it, so my eye can't skim ahead to the next line. If it's a complex story, I will use two rulers - one above the line of text I am editing, and one below.

It's a method I've found really helpful. You can do the ruler method in conjunction with reading aloud to focus your mind even more sharply.
posted by indienial at 3:28 AM on April 29, 2011

you print it out and mark every single word as you read it.

As long as you don't just get into a rhythm and start checking things off that you only skimmed. I got in trouble that way early on, when I got into a rhythm and put checkmarks by a bunch of folios that actually had the wrong year.
posted by limeonaire at 5:31 AM on April 29, 2011

When I write something, even a post on Metafilter or a Tweet, I proof it by reading it out load -- SLOWLY -- and by speaking all the punctuation.

So, I would proof that last sentence like this:

When. I. write. something. comma. even. a. post. on. Metafilter. or. a Tweet. comma. I. proof. it. by. reading. it. out. loud. dash. slowly. dash. and. by. speaking. all. the. punctuation. period.
posted by grumblebee at 7:06 AM on April 29, 2011

I say this as someone who used to be REALLY good at on-screen proofing (and I wonder if ageing/eyesight going downhill is part of this) ----> agreeing with those who say to print it.

My publishing company does most of our initial edits and tweaks in PDFs but when it comes down to do the final, full-on pass-through, print (and sending it through more than one person) makes a huge difference.
posted by at 7:45 AM on April 29, 2011

There's a lot of good advice here. Reading out loud definitely helps. Printing out hard copies to mark up is a must too. For me, the most important is taking a break between multiple passes and reading something else in the meantime. It's the editing equivalent of the palate cleanser. Without it, I might as well not have taken the break at all, as I'm spending the break thinking of what I'd just edited, even if I'm not actively editing at that moment.
posted by .kobayashi. at 10:04 AM on April 29, 2011

On the second, slower read for spelling, I take a pencil and move it under each word, one at a time. I'm only allowed to look at the word with the pencil next to it. That way I have to read one word at a time.
posted by medusa at 10:10 AM on April 29, 2011

Printed copy, yellow highlighter, red pen, no distractions. Examine every pixel of toner on the page. If you want it to remain hit it with the highlighter, if not then use the red. When you're finished you will have "yellowed out" the entire document. You can get in the rhythm by first checking all of the headers, footers, section formats, etc., then read each paragraph. Highlight as you go - don't just put a yellow slash across a section. Be deliberate, be patient. Don't fix anything on the screen until you're 100% finished with the review.

Tell the boss that you're trying some new proofing techniques and you'd like to use them on her work too. Of course she'll give you something she thinks is perfect, and when you hand her back a document that's mostly yellow with the inevitable stray red mark maybe she'll appreciate your efforts.

You will still make mistakes.
posted by Itinakak at 12:40 PM on April 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

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