Proofreading, an Endurance Sport
by Trista Cornelius
When you have finished your manuscript, proofreading is usually the last step. However, almost no one enjoys editing her own writing. You’ve put all your time into it, and you’re eager to be finished! Exactly because you’ve put all your time into it, you’d better proofread to make sure an easy-to-miss typo doesn’t dull the sheen on your final draft.
Finding the proofreading method that is right for you can make the work more fun and effective. Here are some possibilities:
Print your final draft, then stand up and read your piece aloud to an empty room but pretend two dozen people are sitting there listening attentively. Your nervous system barely knows the difference, and your fight-or-flight brain alerts you to odd phrases, shifts in tense, or weak wording.
A student told me that she intensified this proofreading technique by standing in front of a mirror to read aloud. Her reflection provided a more real sense of audience and made her acutely aware of the sound, pace, and logic of her words.
A professor my freshman year of college told us to read our final drafts backwards. My sophistication lagged behind my enthusiasm for college, and I understood this advice literally. I tried reading my essay from right to left. Only later did I understand what he meant: start with the very last sentence of your manuscript. Read it first. If you like what you see, read the second-to-last sentence next. Then the third-to-last, and so forth.
The sentence is read in the correct left-to-right direction, but it’s taken out of the context of the story, and you’re more likely to notice a blip when you’re not caught up in your own plot or poetic rhythm.
If you enjoy reading and it comes naturally to you, your eyes most likely skim the pages in a zig-zag fashion. Rarely do you look at each individual word in a sentence. Instead, your eyes recognize patterns and shapes. Therefore, forcing yourself to look at only one sentence at a time shifts your view completely.
To do this, take a blank sheet of printer paper and cover all but the first sentence of your story. This simplifies your view and keeps your eyes focused on one sentence, not leaping ahead to the next idea. Be slow and patient. Don’t shift your blank paper until you’ve fully contemplated that one sentence.
Ideally, ignore your final draft for a few days or weeks. When you return to it, read it casually, as if you’d come across it in a magazine you thumbed through while waiting at the dentist’s office, as if you have no idea what it’s about or where it’s going.
This puts you in a reader’s mind, letting the story unfold more passively than your directive writer’s mind can do. Mark areas that don’t work, but wait to make changes until you’ve finished reading the whole draft so you can stay in this reader’s mind.
Print your final draft. The vast majority of us do a better job of editing on paper than on screen. It slows us down, makes us think through our changes, and keeps us from inserting a change quickly and inadvertently creating another typo. Printing in a different or larger font also helps because the text looks less familiar and you’re more likely to notice you typed “heel” when you meant “heal.”
Lastly, the ideal way to proofread your work is to for someone else to do it! Whether you pay a professional or bribe a friend, ask someone else to proofread for you.
Someone who has not written the story has an easier time noticing mistakes. When working with student writers, for example, I sometimes ask them to read their work aloud to me as I follow along. Inevitably, they read words that are not on the page. Their minds automatically correct the sentence because the writer’s mind knows what it meant to say.
Ask a few friends to read your work and mark any areas that don’t sound right. As much as you might want them to “fix it” for you, ask them not to make corrections. Go over the draft together to come up with ideal solutions.
You can also read your work aloud to your friends and have them note anything you read differently than it appears in print. Or, my favorite: ask them to read your work aloud to you as you follow along. My writing group did this for me, and without my intonation, a piece I’d meant as humorous fell totally flat. My sentences hadn’t carried my intention, and I couldn’t “hear” that until someone else read the story aloud.
Although there’s something to be said for crafting one lovely sentence and letting that lead to the next lovely sentence, I wrote this column assuming you’re saving the detail work for the very end, but that’s not the only option. My next column will look at the writing process, so you can decide when proofreading works best for you.
In the meantime, please post comments about other proofreading methods you have found effective. These are my most tried-and-true, but there are many more.
Trista Cornelius writes VoiceCatcher’s bimonthly column “Dotting Your Ts and Crossing Your Eyes” and is currently on a leave of absence from Clackamas Community College where she has been teaching writing, literature and food studies. Follow her writing, reading and eating adventures here.