Six Tips for Proofreading Your Final Copy
Updated: Sep 4, 2021
You’ve spent months editing your written work. Your friends and colleagues gave feedback, you revised, you found a designer, and you’re confident in the quality of your product. You’re ready to publish.
Once you do a final proofread, that is.
The first round of editing caught big-picture issues: consistency in tone and perspective, plot holes, issues in argument logic, etc. The next round (or rounds) of editing caught significant errors in spelling, grammar, and wording—the things that would make an average reader stumble. But the final round of editing, proofreading, will now catch all the small errors your earlier edits missed and your final formatting may have introduced.
You’ve come this far. Honor your hard work by doing a final proofread. Follow these tips, and your work will be perfectly polished and ready for your readers.
Print Out Your Document
Yes, it takes a lot of paper. Yes, that can be expensive. Yes, it’s time-consuming and may even seem a little outdated. But no, this isn’t a step you should skip.
First, if your work will ever be in print format, you need to get a good idea of how it will look. Computer-screen displays can vary, and sometimes you’ll find that formatting doesn’t translate well to the printed page, so printing your document will give you a better idea of what the final product will look like. But the biggest reason why you should print out your work is to defamiliarize it.
An article in Wired explains that we miss simple typos—missing articles, transposed letters, repeated words, etc.—because our brains have familiarized themselves with the work, freeing up mental power for higher-level thinking required for comprehending the complex ideas it’s reading. As psychologist Tom Stafford says, “We take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.” This means our brains are going to tell us what we think should be on the screen, not what is actually there.
When you print out the document, you combat that familiarization. Even though it’s the same words, the visual difference is enough for your brain to see it as fresh, incongruent with the memorized copy. You’ll suddenly find yourself catching errors you could have sworn weren’t there before.
Mark your edits on the page as you read. To help yourself see your notes, use a colored pen or pencil. Though I love my fine-tipped red Sharpie, a purple or blue pencil allows for erasing any mistakes or reevaluated notes.
Once you have your document printed out in front of you, read it aloud as you run through it. This trick will help you catch blatant typos. Your brain may gloss over a repeated the when silently reading, but when you have to speak the words, you’ll be more likely to notice the problem.
Reading your work aloud also helps with understanding punctuation. Most of us can identify how question marks and exclamation marks sound with their uncertainty and firmness, respectively. But other punctuation marks can also carry different tones. Think of a comma as a very short pause, a semicolon as a little longer of a pause, an em dash as an abrupt jump to the next word, and a period as a full rest. Read as such, and you’ll notice if one of these marks sounds out of place.
Read from the End to the Beginning
While it may take a short time to get used to, reading from the last paragraph to the next-to-last paragraph and so on to the beginning helps the defamiliarization process. Your brain isn’t working chronologically anymore, so it can’t automatically finish your story or argument. In other words, you’re turning off autopilot.
Just a quick tip from personal experience on that note: make sure you have some sort of page numbers, even if you delete them in your final copy. One swiftly closed door can cause a big mess otherwise, and it’s even harder to remember where you left off when you’re not reading from the beginning.
Stay Focused When Editing On-Screen
Once you’ve marked up your paper copy of your document, it’s time to go back to your computer and make changes. Go from the beginning to end this time, as you’ll be less likely to miss any notes. Make the font as big as possible without being distracting (we all know it’s hard to catch meaning, let alone punctuation, in fine print). Close any browser windows that could tempt you away from your work. Try to work uninterrupted, but take consistent breaks so your eyes don’t get tired and your mind restless; even the best proofreader will start missing punctuation when working for hours on end.
Make sure your designer is familiar with the tools you’re using to track changes. You want to save time for both of you by limiting the amount of unnecessary communication, so make your edits as clear as possible.
Check Your Designer’s Changes
Hopefully, once you’ve sent your edits, your designer has changed everything perfectly, and your work is immaculate. Unfortunately, we’re all human, so this ideal situation is very unlikely.
I once worked with a client to edit her book from draft to publication. By the time the graphic designer had finished the layout, I had spent hours and hours and hours editing. But, even with a time crunch, the client chose to have us to do another proofread, just in case some final errors were introduced in formatting.
Surprise! The graphic designer had chosen to change our footnotes to endnotes. Suddenly the author’s witty asides and explanations were notes not worth the shuffle to the back of the book. What’s more, style is different between endnotes and footnotes, and I had to fix the discrepancies.
Even if you’re not dealing with extensive footnotes, it’s almost inevitable for some errors to be introduced in your final draft due to the nature of formatting. So, no matter how much you want to be finished and just publish that book, make sure you check your designer’s changes. Occasionally a small change to a word will completely alter spacing or indentation, so be sure you’re looking at the surrounding text and layout as well as just the minor edits.
Make Your Final, Final Review
If you have time, it’s a good idea to read your work once more, especially if you found a lot of errors in your last proofread. However, that’s not always a possibility due to publishing schedules. If you can’t do the full reread, make sure you check headings and extra material, such as forewards and dedications. Chapter titles and subheadings are often in larger font size and bold, and they’re not surrounded by other text, so it’s a lot easier for the reader to notice errors in these places. Forewards, dedications, about pages, and other extra material were usually written later in the process, so they’ve been edited fewer times and could probably use another check.
Reaching the Finish Line
Once you’ve followed the steps and ideas above, you’ll likely find yourself relieved to be finished. But you may also be a little afraid that you’ve missed something. If that’s the case, go over your proofreading checklist again, reminding yourself of the work you’ve done. If you’re still anxious, have a professional proofreader or a good friend with an editor’s eye review your work one more time. But eventually you’ll have reached the point where you’ve done everything possible to perfect your work, and it will be time to release it into the world.
So, celebrate. Send it away to publishing and reward yourself with a fancy dinner, a new book, or a fun trip. Be proud of your accomplishments and invite others to join in your excitement. Writing and editing are difficult processes, and you deserve to reward yourself for crossing that finish line.
After you’ve cleaned up the confetti, go back to your computer or journal and start writing again.