Tips for proofreading when you don’t have a proofreader

by Kate Merryweather, Melbourne website copywriter

Back in the early 2000s my boss Chris (hey Chris!) was always ticking me off for spelling mistakes and literals in my draft press releases.

Whenever I was proofreading my own drafts, I skimmed over them, not checking them properly. I knew Chris would fix the mistakes before the client got to see it… so I missed a lot of errors. Sorry about that, Chris.

But somehow over the years, I got good at proofreading. As I progressed in my PR career, I became the one proofing drafts that others had written. I knew that if I didn’t spot the mistake, the client would. I had picky clients, especially the Australian Defence Force. Man, those army guys are strict with everything—including spelling and grammar. I did not want to be the one to send them a draft with mistakes, no siree, sir.

I found it easy to spot literals in others’ drafts, but hard to spot errors in my own. And it’s not just me. Research shows it happens to us all, thanks to our brains.

But what if you don’t have the luxury of another brain or pair of eyes? I don’t, so I use a few techniques to get me through.

Printer and Ruler

I print off my work and read it, using a ruler. The ruler forces me to actually look at every word in the line. I love this proofreading technique so much, I wrote a whole blog post about it too. It’s da bomb – the technique, not the blog post…

Don’t want to print on paper to save the environment? Hold your ruler up to the screen – it totally works and you can feel smug about saving the planet.

Hemingway

This clever app spots all the unnecessary adjectives and adverbs that creep into your work, making it wordy and boggy and sad. I was pleased to load this very blog article into the program and it gave me a readability score of four, which is good. But I was shocked to see how often I used ‘really’ in my sentences. Really a lot!

Read out loud – S L O W L Y

Reading out loud is a great tactic. It’s really helpful to find the words you overuse. Like the word really—it snuck in again!

You must read out loud slowly. Fast reading is a mistake for young players. Reading slow is the only way to truly check the copy. If you are getting bored proofreading your own copy—that’s a red flag too.

Slow reading is also great for short snippets—like social media posts—that you don’t want to bother printing out.

Check it after you publish/submit

Expert copywriter Belinda Weaver says she always does her best proofreading after she hits send, and I’m the same. You always find mistakes afterwards. Once I missed the ‘r’ in white shirts for my cufflinks client, Miss Links… shirts without the r = shits! Whoops. It might already be published or sent to the client but it is better you spot the error and take action to minimise damage.

Voice to text programs

There are plenty of programs that will read your words out loud, which can help you listen out for errors, and they do a better job of reading it out yourself. (Thank you Kate Toon for that tip.) If you are immature, you can make your computer read you compliments that you wrote yourself, or amusing notes to your husband. Not me of course…

Other things to look out for:

It’s easy to spot literals, errors and grammar mistakes. It’s harder to give the copy that extra wow factor.

Here’s a few elements to keep in mind:

  1. Can you delete words or sentences and still convey the message? Be ruthless.
  2. Could this be written by someone else and sound the same? Would another brand or a competitor would say the same thing? If so, it needs more personality, to make it unmistakably belonging to you or your brand.
  3. Is it repetitive? There is no need to bang home the same message: say it once or twice, strongly and clearly. It is more impactful that way.
  4. What’s it for again? Consider the reason this document exists – is it still achieving its purpose?

I hope these trusy techniques help you go from zero to hero with your proofreading!

Hey, don’t go away!

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