Upon Further Review…5 Tips for Effective Proofreading

The photo above received a lot of play in the Boston newspapers several months ago. Four letters. Two wrong. Not good. It's bad enough that someone painted the sign incorrectly, but then a crew went through the trouble of actually hanging it up. Mind boggling.

A couple of weeks later during one of our all-too-frequent snow storms here in the Northeast, I drove past a restaurant with the following message displayed on its outdoor sign:

"Closed Due to Inclimate Weather"

Which prompts the question: Whatever became of proofreading?

As a copywriter, I'm deathly afraid of submitting or posting copy with typos or missing words. Writing is my stock in trade so if I can't deliver error-free copy I'm not going to be instilling much confidence in my clients.

I don't think people - whether professional writers or not - realize the impact that misspellings and other mistakes have on their readers.

In my prior life as VP/North American Operations for a global manufacturing/fulfillment company, I had the pleasure (?) of reviewing hundreds of resumes. The first things I looked for were typos. If I found one, the applicant was on thin ice. Two, he or she was slipping into darkness. Three? They hit the discard pile.

And that was even before I got into the meat of the person's background. I just felt that if the applicant couldn't take the extra time needed to proofread probably the most important document in his or her life at that time, how conscientious of a worker would they be? In my mind, not very.

Whether you're sending an email, writing a blog post, or preparing a business plan for investors, the content you put out directly reflects on you. It goes a long way toward forming your reader's opinion of you - for better or worse. Your content must be credible to be effective. And nothing destroys your credibility faster than a careless typo or two.

Here are five tips you can use to make sure your copy is correct before you hit the send or print button.

1. Sleep on it - My first rule is to never proofread anything the same day I write it. After spending several hours composing a piece of content, I'm just too close to it to be able to switch gears from creation to detail checking. It's almost like snow blindness. I just can't see the words anymore. I have to let the piece simmer overnight, get some separation, and then attack it with a fresh set of eyes the next day.

2. Proofing is hard (copy) - I know it's not very green of me, but I nearly always print out a hard copy to proofread one of my pieces. This is a technique I picked up from my days as a proofreader in a printing company many, many years ago. I was trained to use a ruler to block out every line but the one I was proofing. The most important thing in proofreading is focus. By highlighting one line at a time, I force myself to focus only on the words on that line. I suppose I could try to use that technique on my iMac screen but I don't think it would work as well.

3. Don't trust spellcheck - President Ronald Reagan once said when discussing negotiating with the USSR that we must "trust then verify."

I feel the same way about spellcheck. As we all know, if you spell something wrong enough that it becomes another word, spellcheck will let you proceed on your merry way without displaying the deadly red squiggly underscore. SpellCorrect has made the problem worse by changing a word you want into something else entirely without even letting you know. And you're well aware of the trouble with homonyms like "there and their" or "too and to." Spellcheck will never catch those mistakes. This is one area where technology can't help you.

4. Strunk and White are your friends - I know. Seeing those two names gave you nasty flashbacks to high school English. I'm sure many of you have a pristine, uncracked copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style stored somewhere in the attic or basement. If you're going to be doing any writing, do yourself a favor and dig it out. It was originally written over hundred years ago by William Strunk and then updated by E. B. White. It's just under 100 pages and is the best reference book you could ever have.  It's basic training for writing covering proper usage, form, words and expressions. I refer to it at least once a day.

5.  I can't hear you - Once you've written your piece, let it sit over night, and proofread it thoroughly, you're done right?  Wrong. Go over it one more time. This time without the ruler but instead read it out loud. This may make your fellow house members think you've lost your mind, but this is a critical key last step. Reading aloud will help you catch the rhythm of the piece and alert you to missing words, double words, and clumsy phraseology. I promise that you'll find at least one more thing that needs correcting.

Finally, for those of you furiously rereading this piece to uncover a typo so you can rub it in my face, I have a treat for you. I intentionally included one for you to find so you wouldn't be disappointed. It happens to be one of the 100 most incorrectly spelled words in English according to It also happens to be my personal demon. I nearly always mispell it but I catch it in the proofreading stage. If you find it, congratulations and let me know.

How about you? Do you proofread thoroughly enough? What tricks and tips do you use?

(Photo credit: Rich Shertenlieb on