Back in the days when I worked as an English teacher, if I had been given a pound for every time I had to hand back a piece of writing to a student saying ‘read it first!’, well, I’d have had trouble holding my trousers up the pockets would have been so full. Which would have been distracting.
The trouble is though that the single worst person to proofread any piece of writing is the writer him or herself. When we read our own writing we read what we expect to read. We know what we meant, and what we meant to put. Whether those words are the actual ones on the page, and whether they are correctly spelt, and in the right order, is not something we as writers are terribly good at determining, because we keep seeing what was in our mind at the time, not what’s on the page now.
I know that there are some people who tap out the scintillating visions inside their heads, hurling the resulting creative manuscript at the world with scarcely the briefest of glances. Look out world. I also know that there are people who diligently re-read their work before sending it out. Unfortunately neither approach is terribly advisable.
If you’re looking to be published, perhaps in a magazine, an anthology or you have a full novel to send out, you’re looking for an agent, or you’re creating online content for your website or as part of an article marketing campaign, then it is essential to fully appreciate the difference between reading and proofreading. In fact more than that, you need to know how to proofread, and how to edit, and that’s a whole different bucket of trout.
Proofreading And Editing? Aren’t They The Same Thing?
No. Well that was a short answer. I shall elaborate however. Proofreading is simply checking to see that the words on the page have been spelt correctly, that punctuation has been applied correctly, and that there are no unfortunate grammatical mistakes. In other words it simply makes sure that whatever is on the page is correct and accurate.
Editing is somewhat different, because this is the process of trying to improve the quality of the writing, perhaps making it a little clearer, more succinct, reducing the length of long sentences, improving the pace and flow of the writing. It might turn a description into a conversation, a lengthy description into a brief metaphor, or remove an entire section of writing which may be largely unnecessary.
So proofreading is about accuracy, editing is about quality, and to be successful you need to be able to do both. And re-reading your work is not the same as either proofreading or editing.
How Do You Proofread Your Own Writing Accurately?
First of all, proofreading is not a case of glancing at the screen every few words and checking that your wordprocessing software hasn’t underlined any of them in red. Proofreading is also not reading through your writing once you’ve finished.
In fact proofreading is a completely different type of reading to that with which most people are familiar, and it takes a good deal of discipline, and time. Which sadly is why so many people don’t bother.
Proofreading requires a careful analysis of each individual word, whereas with standard reading we tend to see groups of words at a time. In fact the brain is so good at reading that often we only have to glance at the shape of a word, and perhaps the first letter or so, to know what it is. We rarely read more than half of the letters on the page, and regularly skip entire words.
When proofreading it is not acceptable to skip words, or to simply glance at a word and guess what it is. Because what you will see is what you expect to see, and that’s not necessarily what is there.
So the first rule of proofreading is to read each word, identifying what it is supposed to be, and then checking that it really is that word, and that it is correctly spelt. Punctuation is also important, including things such as apostrophes.
Sometimes it will be necessary to read a sentence twice, once to determine if the sentence makes grammatical sense, is structured correctly and punctuated appropriately without any unnecessary or missing marks such as commas, and then again to verify that each individual word is correctly spelt.
When Should You Proofread Your Writing?
I definitely don’t advise doing your proofreading and editing immediately after the writing itself. This is because the words and phrases are still going to be very fresh in your mind, which means that there is a much greater probability that you will read what you meant to write rather than what your fingers actually thumped out.
So I recommend leaving it for a while – how long depends on your schedule, but if you can leave it at least a day, that’s ideal. I sometimes spend an hour in the morning proofreading the writing I did the day before. As I sometimes write up to 10,000 words in a day, that is usually enough time to ensure that the words and phrases aren’t too fresh, and my memory of them isn’t too precise, which means that I usually spot errors fairly quickly and easily. However, if you only write a few hundred words you may find that proofreading it is best left a little longer.
Should You Proofread Your Writing First, Or Edit It First?
Personally I would strongly recommend proofreading work first, before editing. This is simply because, whilst a little time is all that might be needed to ensure that recollection doesn’t result in expectation, causing you to read what you remember you meant to write, I think that a much greater period of time is needed before you can effectively carry out editing.
Editing is much more involved, looking at the writing in a more objective way. You’ll need to stand back from it, and analyse it more critically in terms of pace, structure, depth, rhythm, language and style. To properly edit a piece of writing requires the sort of critical objectivity which can only really occur after a sufficient period of time has elapsed since the original writing.
Of course, once the editing has been completed, further proofreading will be required. A second read through to proofread the text can often result in missed errors being discovered, simply because of the greater disassociation of expectation.
What If You Can’t Be Bothered To Proofread Or Don’t Have Time To Edit?
Might I respectfully suggest that perhaps writing as a career may not be quite as suitable for you as you imagined? It really does irritate me when I see utter drivel published online or distributed as marketing material with a plethora of mistakes from top to bottom. It shows no respect for the reader, and no interest in quality. If you can’t even be bothered to read your own writing, why on earth should anybody else?
Writing is not the be all and end all of writing. From the early stages of planning and researching to the final proofreading and editing, the actual writing stage is only the little bit in the middle.
Proofreading and editing is essential, and must either be carried out by the writer in a diligent and methodical way, or by enlisting the services of a professional proof-reader or editor (a service which, incidentally, I do offer – http://www.themightierpen.co.uk/proofreading-service.shtml)
Submitting writing which has not been proofread or edited is like serving a Sunday roast with the chicken still wandering across the table. Do it properly, or not at all. The consequence of taking a shortcut is to speed up the time it takes for your credibility to plummet.