5 Easy ways to be a better proofreader for your own work

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Written By Kendall Richmond

The ability to edit and proofread your own writing is essential for copywriters, especially if you’re working independently. Thankfully, there are tried-and-true methods to improve your self-editing skills.

Whether you’re writing quick-turn web copy or a hefty annual report, it’s always useful for someone else to glance over your work. But as most copywriters know, having a proofreader or editor on your team is a luxury.

Often both freelance and in-house writers are a one-stop shop for the entire content cycle, meaning it’s essential to improve your ability to edit and proof your own writing.

Why do I catch typos in other people’s writing but not my own?

You may tackle the Sunday paper with a red pen in hand, but even the most eagle-eyed writer is likely to miss typos or mistakes in their own writing. Why? As Tom Stafford of the University of Sheffield in the UK explains in an article by Nick Stockton in Wired, your brain is more focused on the high-level task of conveying meaning. So, when we read our own work, we’re more likely to see the ideal version that exists in our minds, even if it isn’t translated exactly on the page.

Stockton writes: “We can become blind to details because our brain is operating on instinct. By the time you proofread your own work, your brain already knows the destination.”

Five tips for proofing your own writing

Even if you do have the reassurance of a proofreader to carefully check your work, you still want it to be in top shape before you submit it. Here are five ways to do just that:

  1. Read your work aloud. It’s awkward, but effective. The first time I did this, I was studying abroad in England. As part of my Shakespeare course, I had to bring a 10-page literary analysis every week to my one-on-one session with my professor. When asked to read my work aloud to start our discussion at our first session, I was embarrassed. What I thought was a seamless piece of writing suddenly sounded convoluted and repetitive. Needless to say, the next week I read my work out loud before attending my tutoring session. Lesson learned.
  2. Change the font or colour for on-screen proofing, or print your work and edit by hand. In the Wired article, Stafford suggests making your work as unfamiliar as possible to help your brain tune in. You can do this by changing the way your work appears on the screen, or working from a hard copy. When I work from a hard copy, I sometimes cover the text below with a sheet of paper or methodically move my pen from one word to the next (this helps me notice if I’ve missed a simple word such as an article or preposition).   
  3. Read your work backwards. Trusty guru Grammar Girl suggests starting with the last sentence of your copy and then working your way back to the beginning, sentence by sentence. Again, you’re tricking your brain so it doesn’t simply see what it wants or expects to see. This is also a great way to slow down as you proof.  
  4. Proof several times with a specific focus. Leah McClellan at WritetoDone suggests reading your work several times for different types of mistakes. This is especially useful if you know you have a tendency to make a particular sort of error, such as writing sentences with dangling modifiers or missing subject-verb agreement issues.
  5. Spend some time away from the piece before proofing. With needed-it-yesterday deadlines, this isn’t always possible. But whenever you can, step away from your work for a while after you’ve finished revising and before you start rereading it. Even if it’s just 15 minutes while you walk down the street to grab another latte, the break will help you bring fresh eyes to your work.

Proofreading your own writing is no easy task, but with practice you’ll continue to improve your ability to read your own copy objectively. And in the meantime, make sure you thank your editor or proofreader for their diligent work the next time you have the luxury of collaborating with one! If you would like to create more content, so you can proof it later, then see this great post about where to source content.