Help me be a better self-editor
February 9, 2007 6:44 PM   Subscribe

How do I improve my self editing/proofreading skills when it comes to the writing I produce for work?

I'm a lawyer, so the documents in question are all legal briefs or letters, etc. I've been told that I'm a good writer, but one area in which I have trouble involves editing my own work. I find that by the time I write something and read it several times, I am not longer able to "spot" mistakes or sentences that could use some repair. Some are so obvious, that when they're corrected by someone else I'm shocked (and embarrassed) that I could have let the mistake slip.

I've been told that putting the document down for a while (hours/days) and then coming back to it can help, but oftentimes I don't have this luxury, and need to write something and get it out the door fast, so to speak.

Any pointers would be appreciated.
posted by suasponte to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Read the document in reverse. This forces you to read more slowly.

Use the grammar and spellchecker.

Use a readability checker to see what the reading level is at. Microsoft Word uses Flesch-Kincaid. Sometimes, a poor reading level is an indicator that you've made structural and grammatical errors.

Ask someone else to proofread your work.

Take a course in writing and editing.
posted by acoutu at 6:54 PM on February 9, 2007

Read it to yourself out loud, even if under your breath.
posted by chudder at 7:02 PM on February 9, 2007

Can you take at least a short break? Go off and do something else different from reading and writing for 15-30 minutes. Something to change your mindset. Then get into cross-exam mindset. Imagine the opponent wrote that thing. Go in with an attitude to scour the details, to shred it. Imagine the judge is looking over your shoulder.

I could never do the read in reverse thing, and I have to proof my own documents often. I find a very clear and hyperalert critical mindset helps a lot. Also standing, as you might when making formal argument, helps. I stand and proof off the screen quite often.
posted by Listener at 7:16 PM on February 9, 2007

I find I make a lot of errors proofreading when I only review on-screen. After running spellcheck, I print out a clean copy and read it with red pen in hand.

It helps to have some familiarity with proofreading symbols; if you use them you'll spend less time grappling with the mechanics of specifying what you want to correct if you have a common language that you or any one else can follow.

I proofread at least twice, the first run for content (i.e., Did I say what I wanted to say?), the second for grammar and punctuation (i.e., Did I say it without sounding like a total chimp?)

For the first run, I like to read the document aloud, to an imaginary or real audience (if available) while pretending to be a radio announcer...actually read the words that are on the page vs. the words I think should be there. For the second part, I lock the office door, put the phone on answer, pour cup of coffee, and pore over the printout with an AP Stylebook and The Elements of Style at hand.
posted by jamaro at 7:20 PM on February 9, 2007

Just read it out loud to yourself, or find a friend to read it to you. Just make sure you relax. You're undoubtedly clever enough to write well, and to know mistakes, but you're too worried to listen carefully.
posted by gordie at 7:31 PM on February 9, 2007

Bounce your pencil off every word. You can also do this with your cursor, but I'm much faster at that kind of movement with a pencil. This will help you find missing words, repeated words, and similar mistakes. If you really make yourself look at each word as your pencil hits it and make sure that what you're seeing matches up with what you're saying in your head, you'll also spot typos (the kind spellcheck lets through). If my hands aren't free I will sometimes force myself to read something word by word by tapping a foot as I read each word, but I don't think that's as effective.
posted by nevers at 7:39 PM on February 9, 2007

Print it out. Read it out loud. Utilize a proofreader such as an assistant, colleague or SO. Read something else between readings of the work you are editing. Something that is mildly challenging so you can change your focus, but not so challenging that it saps your mental energy before returning to important deadline document.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:49 PM on February 9, 2007

Red dot it. I'm a lawyer and I print it out, then go over every word and punctuation mark with a red pen. I put a dot over every word. I then circle in red each change that needs to be made, then continue going over it. I then get out a blue pen. As I change each thing on the screen, I check off the change in blue. I then go over the document, making sure each and every circled change has a blue check mark next to it. Nothing is worse than failing to correct a mistake you saw. Finally, never, ever proof off a computer screen.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:12 PM on February 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

I do this for everything I write, including e-mails. Makes people overestimate me.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:13 PM on February 9, 2007

1. You can't proof on screen.
2. The bigger the better. Copy your text to a scratch document and print it out at 18pt. Proof-read that.
3. Red-dot, if you're billing at hundreds of dollars an hour. :)
posted by bonaldi at 8:26 PM on February 9, 2007

I agree with the others that proofing a hardcopy is better, but probably you are already doing that. Ironmouth's thing about ticking the changes off as you enter them is good to slow you down. I've done that. However, that and printing is starting to take as much time as going away for an hour, which you say you can't do.

You can learn to proof onscreen. I had to. Do have a big screen and use the maximum display size for the text that you can, without the document jumping around. That will also slow you down nicely. You just need to change the details of your state, so you have fresh perception of it all.
posted by Listener at 8:34 PM on February 9, 2007

You can learn to proof onscreen.
I won't say it's impossible, but for some reason the effort that must be expended is far higher than for the same level of accuracy proofing on paper. At my newspaper, copy will pass through 5 or 6 people, all of them editing and proofing on screen, before it makes press.

Then it's reproofed, printed out on giant A2 sheets. Every night a pile of these sheets is stacked up, each of them with multiple corrections on them. I can't quite explain it, but humans are better at reading closely on paper.
posted by bonaldi at 9:08 PM on February 9, 2007

I would recommend printing it out and reading it aloud. Consider purchasing a style guide and familiarizing yourself with it--you may find yourself more aware of grammatical errors as a result.
posted by perpetualstroll at 9:39 PM on February 9, 2007

If you have a good secretary, proofreading can be one of the most valuable things s/he can do for you.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 9:49 PM on February 9, 2007

Setting it down for a day or two is the gold standard. Getting the person in your department who has an eye for these things is too. Especially for content/communication edits, these two are the only way.

But -- if you have to settle for silver, there are a lot of good suggestions here. If you can't red-dot, a compromise is to go over the whole thing, hard copy, line-by-line. Use a blank sheet of paper to block out the lines below the one you're working on. This will curb your eye's tendency to jump ahead and fill in any gaps -- which will make it easier for you to see the gaps/errors.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:02 PM on February 9, 2007

-Turn on your grammar and spell checker.
-Pay attention, so that you can learn which words you tend to mistype or misuse, then make sure you check every document you produce for those common errors (form/from, and "relationshiop" are the ones I always mess up on, for example).
-Make sure you are using the formatting marks built into your word processor. It will allow you to catch things like extra spaces, too many lines, and other small-but-important things as you type. Once those are all taken care of, you can focus on the words more carefully.
-Print the document out and read it under your breath, while pretending that you are reading it to your big boss. If you stumble on any one sentence, consider rewriting it.
-If you can't spare an hour to put the document down, at least try to work on something else for 10-20 minutes before going over it again. Make a conscious effort to focus on something else for a while, or even to daydream for a bit, so that you disconnect from the document itself.
posted by gemmy at 10:29 PM on February 9, 2007

Besides all of the above ... do this once for each doc:

* Read it backward, sentence-by-sentence, end-to-beginning.
* Print it out, take it elsewhere and read it.
* Put it into a different font and read it.

Basically, you want to disconnect yourself from your familiarity with your document. If you force yourself to consider sentences out of context with each other, you'll be more likely to spot issues within individual sentences, clauses and phrases.
posted by frogan at 11:48 PM on February 9, 2007

I don't do the red dot thing, but I take a pencil or a piece of paper and cover up the words below the line I'm reading. I tend to read ahead and skim things, and it's my way of making myself slow down.

I'm totally going to try red dots, blue checks next time I finish something really major, though. I love that idea.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:05 AM on February 10, 2007

Nth what everyone else says. I just wanted to note that what you're going through is a common problem. I'm confident that the advice provided here will help you to overcome it.
posted by princesspathos at 6:07 AM on February 10, 2007

Thanks! These were all great ideas.
posted by suasponte at 7:00 AM on February 10, 2007

I'm sorry--I have to disagree fairly strongly with the MS Word spelling and grammar checkers. They are really, really, really awful. The spelling checker is necessarily stupid. It distinguishes only between "This assemblage of letters is in my onboard dictionary as a word" and "I do not recognize this string of letters as a word". Legal language is going to get flagged up and down the line, and distinguishing between/among homophones simply will not work.

The grammar checker, should you listen to it, will ensure that your sentences are without variation, are always written in the SVO order, and always in the active voice. Again, in most language over the 2nd grade reading level, this is not desirable. I would beg you not to rely on these two tools.

The other recommendations above, however, are sound: reading aloud is my favorite, though it works a lot better when you read to someone else. Reading backwards (word by word for spelling issues, clause by clause or sentence by sentence for utterance-level stuff) is great as well, but takes a little discipline. I'll second much else that is above, as well--especially turning on the formatting in your Word window.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 7:13 AM on February 10, 2007

The key, as has been stated above, is to destroy your familiarity with the text. I've found radical changes to margins, kerning, font, etc. are good for this.

I find a lot of the mistakes I miss are near the margins (i.e. the last word or two before a new line, or the first word or two after a new line), because my eyes and brain are itching to skip down. If you're like me in that respect, and you can alter the format of your document so that lines are beginning and ending with different words than before, that could help.
posted by ewiar at 8:34 AM on February 10, 2007

JohnnyGunn: "Print it out. Read it out loud. Utilize a proofreader such as an assistant, colleague or SO. Read something else between readings of the work you are editing. Something that is mildly challenging so you can change your focus, but not so challenging that it saps your mental energy before returning to important deadline document."

Yes, yes and yes.
posted by loiseau at 9:21 AM on February 10, 2007

To clarify, spelling and grammar checkers are great for "first pass" stuff - dealing with major problems like clear misspellings, sticking to the correct tense, and [generally, anyway] subject/verb agreement. Never rely solely on them, though, as SnooKloze says. Leave them on, but don't feel compelled to take their advice.

Another tip is to use an external thesaurus. It's amazing how limited the Word thesaurus is, and a lot of people use it exclusively anyway.
posted by gemmy at 11:01 AM on February 10, 2007

On thesauri: I absolutely forbid my students to ever use one. They are dangerous tools that should be kept away from undergraduates at all costs. There's nothing worse than a paper filled with a lot of pseudo-sophisticated, inauthentic vocabulary.

OK, so you're a lawyer and not an undergrad, but I know that some perfectly innocent undergrad will read this post and think that it just might be a good idea to haul out a thesaurus for their next paper. Please, don't.

On editing: I've found my best editing is to have someone else read it out loud to me. We each have a copy in hand and follow along with pencils. I ask my reader (typically my brilliant and patient wife) to mark any questions, but to please not stop.

As she reads mistakes leap out, but so also do style infelicities. When she stutters over some clever prose, I know that my later readers will also stutter, and likely be forced to reread the passage before it makes sense.
posted by terceiro at 6:32 PM on February 10, 2007

I edit a lot in my work -- both my own writing, and others'. I've gotten used to using track changes and editing on-screen, but for really important jobs, I do print it out and proofread the old-fashioned way. Ewiar and frogan had great suggestions I'd never heard or thought of before, regarding changing the margins and type -- will have to try that!

By the way, reading the work aloud is useful. Another alternative is to use a screen reader program like ReadPlease (which has a free version) to read the text. I use that technique when I'm comparing page proofs to an original.
posted by acridrabbit at 8:57 PM on February 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

I like to print the pages out and then proof them upside down. I read much more slowly that way, so I'm looking at each letter and punctuation mark instead of just taking in what I know they're trying to say.
posted by smoakes at 3:25 PM on February 18, 2007

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