It’s my firm belief that a copywriter cannot proofread their own work. That’s why over the years I’ve relied on awesome proofers and editors to help me polish and perfect my writing. This week one of my favourite proofreaders, Trish Arnott, spills the beans on proofreading. Take it away Trish.

What no one tells you about being a proofreader

If you’re proofreading another writer’s work, at some point you’ll deliver the bad news. You need courage.

I’ve been proofreading for 19 years and I’m regarded as a bit of an authority on all things proofreading. So I get loads of queries from would-be proofreaders, or copywriters who want to be able to proofread their own work.

The most common question is, “What books or authorities do you use?

The answer: Most of what I know was in my head before I started. I had very pedantic parents who drummed the basics into me by the time I was 10.

The best advice I got was from a former journalist. His tip? Use the Collins dictionary, not the Oxford.

Why? Because a Collins gives you all the stuff you need without all the etymology that an Oxford offers.

Need to know if you should use ‘reignite’ or ‘re-ignite’? Collins will tell you.

My other favourite source is The Economist Style Guide. It’s a delight to read even if you don’t want to delve too deeply into the nitty-gritty of grammar and style.

Of course, there’s the old standard, The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. This is useful if you have no idea about grammar or style but it’s written for the North American market so you need to be aware of US/English English variations.

Proofreading is like a puzzle

There’s no need to get too hung up about proofreading. Just think of it as ‘Where’s Wally?’ but with words and symbols.

It’s also a bit like solving a cryptic crossword; you need a good general knowledge. (You need to recognise, for example, that Mr Mujherejee is really Mr Mukherjee.)

Look for words that don’t fit the pattern or that look ‘wrong’.

And just as finding Wally is about using a system, you can set up a system to help you in your quest.

1. Look without looking

This is the step that all you speed readers can revel in.

Skim the copy but allow your brain to register words or symbols that don’t fit – the word ‘color’ instead of ‘colour’, inconsistencies. Most of us ‘see’ mistakes but allow our brain to override that part that’s telling us, “Isn’t something wrong here?”

2. Make a list

When you proofread, especially your own work, you’ll find you’re less anxious if you make a list of everything you need to check. Your list could include the client’s name, phone number and address; product names; offer (e.g., all 15%, not 18%); page numbers; links…and so on.

3. Slow down

Once you’ve ‘seen’ those mismatches and other errors, and know what you’re looking for, you need to slow down for your next step; that is, reading through the copy syllable by syllable.

You’ll be surprised at what you find.

When you’re speed reading, it’s too easy to miss that the writer has used ‘you’ when it should be ‘your’ or ‘otpmised’ instead of ‘optimised’ – or missed a second ‘i’ in a word.

(One client, every month, sends me an article titled, ‘Australian Equites’ and every month I correct it to ‘Australian Equities’. No kidding…every month.)

4. Does it make sense?

Finally, read through your corrected copy to make sure it all makes sense. Not so long ago, I read in some client copy that China’s reserve fund was US$2.1 billion. It seemed a bit low for a country of 2 billion people so I queried it. The fund is actually US$2.1 trillion.

5. Have courage

This is the big thing no one tells you.

Proofreading takes courage. If you’re correcting someone else’s copy and you believe that what they’ve written is less than clear, then you need to tell them. In my experience, that doesn’t always go over too well at the time. Just remember; you’re doing them a favour.

In summary:

1. Read without reading.
2. Make a list of the main things you need to check and cross check.
3. Slow down and read the copy syllable by syllable.
4. Read through your corrected copy to make sure it all makes sense.
5. Take a deep breath and wade in!

There’s always a list

Of course, no guest blog post about proofreading is complete without a list of commonly misspelled words or grammatical errors. I thought I’d avoid the obvious and give you a leg up to the next stratum of proofreading.

11 common writing errors

1. Almost but not quite… 

How often do you hear about ‘bunkering down’? You can hunker down in a bunker but not bunker down…yet. Another in that category: “I’ll just have a slither of cake.” Snakes slither. If you’d like a small piece, you’d ask for a ‘sliver’.

2. Alternate/alternative

These words are not interchangeable. You alternate (verb) between alternative (adjective) styles.

3. Advisor

Advisor is North American spelling. In Australian English, we use adviser; well, people who know the difference do.

4. Anymore, anytime, alot

The two former above are both North American spelling. In Australian English, we use any more, any time. ‘Alot’ isn’t a word in anyone’s language!

5. Apostrophes

If you’re proofreading, you’ll need to understand how these work. The people’s palace; her sister’s child, the kids’ playground; the 1990s’ recession. Just learn them. It’s not that hard.

6. Comprise

Comprise means ‘made up of’ so, ‘The Board comprised both men and women’ NOT ‘The Board was comprised of both men and women’.

7. Dangling participle

Originally designed to connect computers, we’re now realising that the internet can do much more.

The subject of the sentence above is ‘We’ as we are doing the action.

We were not designed originally to connect computers. The sentence should read:
We’re now realising that the internet, designed originally to connect computers, can do much more.

8. S’s

I’ve almost come to blows with my students over this rule. What’s the rule?
“If it’s given to the ear, then it must be given to the eye.”

So – write ‘Thomas’s book’ or ‘Chris’s apple’. However, you’d be correct to use, for example, ‘the elites’ playground’ as you wouldn’t say ‘elites’s’.

9. Time

There’s no such time as 12AM or 12PM. AM stands for ante meridian and PM stands for post meridian. Noon, 12 noon, midday and midnight are on the meridian.

10. Unique

Unique means ‘one of a kind’ so you can’t qualify unique; for example, ‘most unique’.

11. Unusual spelling

Watch out for words like barbecue, desiccate, gauge, indict, subpoena, millennium, accommodation, pronunciation (not ‘pronounciation’), memento (not ‘momento’, which is Italian and means something quite different) and weird.

If you’d like to learn a bit more and see my list of top errors, I run a 2-hour masterclass on request.

Over to you

Did you find this proof reading checklist helpful? Are you a proofreader? What common issues to you find when editing copy? We’d love to hear from you.

Trish-ArnottAbout Trish

Trish Arnott is a proofreader, copywriter and editor working in Sydney for clients across Australia.

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