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April 23, 2012 6:02 PM   Subscribe

How do I proofread my own work more thoroughly?

I'm at a point in my academic life where I'm turning in a lot of WORDS to my adviser and other members of my dissertation committee. This is some qualifying/comps type stuff and drafts of what I hope will be my dissertation proposal. I'm a pretty decent writer, but I am abysmal at seeing my own small grammar mistakes and typos that Word doesn't catch.

These are informal/quick-turnaround things that don't really merit another set of eyeballs for proofing (and honestly, everyone I could ask is just as busy as I am). But I'm awfully frustrated at the level of sloppiness in my work right now. Are there any handy tricks that can help me see these things better? Is a print copy better than onscreen? Reading it aloud? I've heard of a few tips, but wondered if the Metafilter hive had any good ideas. Many thanks!
posted by pantarei70 to Education (29 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Read backwards. That way you won't parse the sentences and gloss over spelling mistakes.
posted by djb at 6:09 PM on April 23, 2012 [7 favorites]

I catch a lot more typos in a print copy than on screen. It also helps if I take my printout and read it in a very separate place from where I do my work.
posted by Mavri at 6:09 PM on April 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

Read it backwards, word for word -- helped me.
posted by trip and a half at 6:10 PM on April 23, 2012

Absolutely print it out and read it in hard copy, with pen in hand. This was the first thing I was taught at my first law job. Your eyes just gloss over stuff on screen.

I second reading the material in another location. I'm not sure why that works, but it does.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:11 PM on April 23, 2012

Yup, backwards reading is the only way I got through round #325325325453243243324 of copyedits on my book. After some point, you memorize your own phrases and paragraphs and this can help quite a bit. Another trick is to print everything out in a weird, different font. It can jar your eyes into seeing the actual words and not your lazy interpretation of what the words might be.
posted by mynameisluka at 6:11 PM on April 23, 2012

Best answer: A print version read out loud. That way you can still catch grammar mistakes and it's a lot harder to gloss over. Also helps if you're a few day removed from writing it, that way you don't have recent memory to fill in the gaps.
posted by raccoon409 at 6:13 PM on April 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

The four things I know work for me:

1) Read once for total content (does it all hang together? Are there logical jumps that you can catch? Does something need to be explained more?)
2) Read next at the paragraph level (focus on each individual paragraph for content)
3) Read a third time for grammar (really force yourself to look at each individual word and just ignore content, since you've already scrutinized it)
4) Read the damn thing backwards, one word at a time.

PS: If there are massive typos/grammar errors here, please know that I am not typing or proofing for the grade. And that my keyboard is beyond wonky in terms of transmitting keystrokes.
posted by Ys at 6:15 PM on April 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

Read it aloud (even if only in your head). But, while you do it, pretend to be your adviser. Seriously.
posted by Ausamor at 6:15 PM on April 23, 2012

I also find that proofwriting in print is much more reliable than on the screen.

An additional trick that I find really helpful is this: Take a piece of thick paper or a notecard and use it to cover up the paper copy of the document. Move the paper/card down slowly, revealing only one line at a time, as you read each line. This will stop you from skimming, and also visibly highlight each line as you proofread it. It's not fast, but it's effective.
posted by willbaude at 6:16 PM on April 23, 2012

A read-aloud session with a printed copy is best (as others have said by now). I never had much luck going backward, but it works for a lot of people, particularly if you go sentence by sentence. Someone I know made a little template/cut-out thing that allowed them to see only 2-3 lines at a time and covered up the rest of the page. Using that, working either forward or backward, made them slow down and just read those 2-3 lines, which helped them see mistakes more easily.
posted by BlooPen at 6:19 PM on April 23, 2012

Best answer: Read aloud and slowly, as though delivering bad news, from a printout. Also, if you write sitting down, proofread while standing up. It's weird, but I find that it works.
posted by gauche at 6:34 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Make sure there is at least 1 day between writing and proofreading stuff. The longer you spend not looking at it, the less chance you'll be seeing what you meant to write, instead of what you actually wrote.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 6:41 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't bother printing things out but I find all kind of errors when I read it aloud to someone else.
posted by jabes at 6:44 PM on April 23, 2012

In grad school I would read my papers aloud (to myself) in an English accent. Any mistakes were more glaring to my New England ears when pronounced as if by a BBC newsreader.
posted by Knappster at 7:05 PM on April 23, 2012

Edit on screen. When you can't find any more problems, print it out, and edit that. Then try reading it out loud. If, at that point, everything looks perfect, give it a rest for as long as you're able (hours or days if possible) and start the cycle again.

If you don't have time to give it a rest, and the first three steps don't seem sufficient to catch all problems, one trick is to print with different font, font size, and spacing. Every time you change format or media, you'll find new problems.

Oh, and never edit the printout in the same room as the computer. Go relax (recline on couch?) somewhere, make corrections in pen, then return to computer to input changes.

One other hint: once someone else has read it (anyone else), and made any comment at all, however useful (or not), you'll magically be able to read it in a new light....and find lots more to fix. It's weird. Try it.
posted by Quisp Lover at 7:10 PM on April 23, 2012

I edit academic writing as a freelance gig and as much as I would love to go all-electronic, I will probably do at least one draft on paper forever. I find so many more things on paper than on the screen. I also find it critical to walk away overnight and come back with fresh eyes on a separate day, if at all possible.

I've never found the backward trick or reading aloud did anything much for me, but I suspect it may be one of those trial-and-error things where you'll just have to see what works best for your brain.
posted by Stacey at 7:12 PM on April 23, 2012

Not sure if this is practical with the amount of text you'll be dealing with, but you could have a computer read it aloud to you. This is built into Android (there are less-painful voices available for $3.00 apiece) and I imagine you can buy software for PC and Mac that can do this. I have my phone read emails back to me and I'm surprised at how much I catch even though I just wrote them.

This works better for me than reading aloud to myself because inevitably I start speeding up, skipping phrases, and reciting what I *remember* instead of what's on the page. The computer never does that.
posted by Tehhund at 7:18 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, when proofing is important, I print it out (and usually reformat it for print), carry the printout to a different room or to a coffee shop, and read it with a red pen in hand. Mistakes just show up better. It would be interesting to try proofing with a tablet and see how well that worked vs desktop computer and vs paper.

I've never heard of the reading backwards trick. I can see how that would be useful for catching word-level errors, not so great for catching sentence-level errors (which I commit often enough as a the result of moving phrases around after writing them and incompletely re-editing). I have heard of the reading-aloud method. Sounds like it would work well, but be slow and irritating to people nearby.
posted by adamrice at 7:30 PM on April 23, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great advice.

I'm a little unclear on the "reading backward" thing. Do you read it all backwards? Or each sentence in the correct word order, moving backwards through the paragraph?
posted by pantarei70 at 7:34 PM on April 23, 2012

Best answer: Related question and helpful answers here.

I started using the yellow highlighter and red pen method ever since I read that thread and found it to be really good at detecting errors. I have also employed the reading out loud method and that works well too.
posted by watch out for turtles at 7:34 PM on April 23, 2012

I'd first give myself distance from the piece. I'd give myself a day if I could, but if not, a few hours. Go out for lunch or some place OUT OF THE LOCATION OF WRITING OR PROOF-READING. Do something completely different. Instead of lunch, you could go for a walk outside or call a friend.

When proof-reading, make sure you are in a different location than writing. A printed copy of the work with red or green pen works. Maybe try proof-reading outside with the nice sun and spring weather making you happy.
posted by eq21 at 7:36 PM on April 23, 2012

Read it in hard copy, read it out loud, read it after taking a day or two away from it.
posted by McPuppington the Third at 8:26 PM on April 23, 2012

I've found there is no better answer than time. Read it in a different format in a different place on a different day. Bonus is that it forces you to develop better work habits as you realize that your production deadline is more than 24 hours before whenever you want to turn the product in.
posted by meinvt at 8:54 PM on April 23, 2012

After fixing the obvious typos and grammar bugs, set yourself a goal of finding a set number of mistakes per page. Let's say 10. Find 10 ways you can improve each page:

- Is there a better word than the one you used?
- Does the sentence flow ok?
- Does that fact or tidbit sound right to you?

If you set yourself x errors to fix per y, trust me, you will find them.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 1:33 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

FWIW, my sister is a professionally trained proofreader and receives digital documents from clients. She prints them all and proofs on hard copy.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:08 AM on April 24, 2012

Best answer: I've worked as an editor, and here are a few things that have helped me:
1. Leave it alone for as long as you can before checking it. You'll spot much more after you've forgotten what you were trying to say.
2. Develop a technique to make yourself read a word or line at a time--this will help you spot skipped or repeated words. If it's a printout, use a small piece of card under each line. On screen, I like to hold down Ctrl and use the left and right arrow keys to move the cursor to whatever word I'm looking at.
3. Give it enough time. You'll want to read every word, rewrite content, maybe even do more research. If you can get an idea of how long it takes you do do one page, you can make sure you dedicate an approriate amount of time to editing.

Good luck.
posted by fonetik at 4:05 AM on April 24, 2012

1)Change the whole text into a strange font that requires more concentration to read.
2)Print out the Document,
3)Read using a pen to obscure the next words so your brain can't jump ahead.
posted by guy72277 at 4:08 AM on April 24, 2012

I work as an editor and writer electronically and I do fine with that. However, my own work often lets mistakes creep in that I don't make when I'm writing for other people: I put this down to some odd, undermining, psychological hoo-hah.

Anyway, I just wanted to chime in to say that many editors / proof-readers who work with students offer a service where they WILL deal with these smaller texts, but will work proactively with you to highlight common errors and look for ways to sort them out. I do this myself (I'm not touting for business: my schedule is pretty full at the moment!), and what I offer is checking all work for £x per 1000 words (my standard student rate) but because you're giving me long-term work, I also throw in one-invoice-per-month terms (or per-term) and this proactive service. I work with lots of Master's students this way, and you really do see an improvement as they have their common errors pointed out and learn how to address them.

So it might be worth investing in your local friendly proof-reader!
posted by LyzzyBee at 5:33 AM on April 24, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks -- reading aloud (trying to sound like robot seemed to help) with hard copy helped me find quite a few errors this morning. Will try the backwards trick too.

posted by pantarei70 at 10:52 AM on April 24, 2012

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