For many people, the difference between revising and proofreading is unclear. When you’re revising, you’re checking the clarity and conciseness of your sentences, your flow of logic, if the transitions between paragraphs are smooth, if any part of the copy strays from your objective or main idea, and whether the text has a strong ending. You typically go through multiple rounds of revisions; the actual number will depend on the writer and the project. Proofreading is usually done once revisions are finished and involves looking for and fixing grammatical errors.
There used to be a time when revising and proofing a completed draft of my work was the hardest part of a project. The pressure of deadlines, real or imaginary, created the temptation to email a piece before I had finished going over it carefully. And if the project had been especially time-consuming, I sometimes became very, very eager to be done with it.
I’ve developed strategies to deal with those impulses and reduce the likelihood that I’ll just see what I want to see during the revision and proofing phase. I suspect many communication professionals deal with the same problem to varying degrees, so I’m sharing my strategies below:
1. Walk Away for a While
This may not always be possible, but if you have the time, set the piece aside before you revise and again before you proof so that you’ll have a fresher and more objective perspective each time. Let it sit overnight, work on another project or just take a brief break before you start making changes.
2. Inspect Different Levels at a Time
The most efficient way to revise your work is to look at it level by level. First, read it through as a whole to see whether you’ve kept to the original purpose and subject matter of the piece. Also, determine whether the tone and style is appropriate for the intended audience and whether your flow of logic is clear.
Next, pay attention to the smaller elements such as paragraphs and sentences. See if each paragraph contains its own “mini-idea” and whether everything (both sentences and paragraphs) flows in a coherent manner.
Also, check whether your sentences are varied in length to avoid monotony. Look for fused sentences, comma splices and sentence fragments, etc. Snip unnecessary words to ensure your sentences are clear and concise.
Next, check whether names, quotes, web links, phone numbers, statistics and facts, etc. are accurate. Decide whether any technical terms that you’ve used will be clear to your audience.
Finally, do your proofreading. Look for spelling and punctuation mistakes, duplicated or stray words, omitted words and any other technical gaffes.
Some communications professionals use different colored pens or markers for the different levels. Others fix issues at each level before moving on to the next. Once I’m done, I do a final“skim through” by using MS Word’s“Find” function to check the amount of spaces behind each period; I’ve found a number of typos with this skimming tactic.
3. Read Your Work Aloud
If you read silently, it’s easier for you to imagine that what you intended to write is indeed what you wrote. I usually only use this tactic if I’m feeling tired and foggy, but I need to train myself to use it more often. It’s a very useful technique for catching errors. Reading aloud is a slower process, so you’re less likely to speed past an error. Also, since you’re paying attention to each word, you’re more likely to find omitted or duplicated words, clumsy sentences, extraneous words left over from a previous change, etc.
4. Track Each Word with Your Pencil/Finger
If you work in a cubicle or in any space where others can easily hear you, the previous tactic may not be appreciated by your colleagues. Some people advocate an alternative which involves moving your finger or the end of a pen or pencil under each line of text as you read so you won’t inadvertently skim through any part of the copy.
Personal note: this technique never appealed to me before because I can see myself increasing speed if I’m feeling pressured. But I’m thinking that since my “use the ‘Find’ function to skim through the copy” tactic produces results, this technique may prove even more effective. This also appears to be a tactic that will work best with a printout, but I’m going to experiment with onscreen text and see how it goes.
5. Use a Style Sheet
I used to have a regular assignment in which I edited and proofread 25 email marketing drafts for a marketer who had very strict wording requirements. Creating a list or style sheet, which is basically an alphabetized grid containing spelling and word usage mandates, is an invaluable tactic for keeping copy consistent and aligned with those mandates.
6. Keep a List of Your Most Common Mistakes
If you’ve observed that you have one or more consistent writing weaknesses (e.g., you have a habit of confusing its [possessive] and it’s [contraction]), create a personal reminder list. Sometimes those persistent weaknesses are the hardest to spot because even if you’re staring right at the error, your brain may try to tell you that there’s no mistake. A reminder list will help you keep a special look out for those errors while you’re proofreading.
You don’t have to use all six tips during your revision and proofing process. In fact, you may have your own techniques (e.g., reading backward) for catching problems with your copy. Different tactics will work for different people; these are the ones that work for or hold promise for me. Feel free to share what works for you. I can always use another tip.