How to proofread your own writing

By Margaret Webster, 

We’ve not met before. But I bet I can guess something about you.

You find proofreading your own work more difficult than proofreading other people’s work, don’t you?

A lot more difficult.

Mistakes just leap off the page when you’re looking at someone else’s writing.

But even when you are diligently doing a detailed proofread of your own writing, those dratted grammatical errors and misspellings remain stubbornly invisible.

How did I know?

Because it’s the same for all of us. Everyone finds proofreading their own work more difficult.

That’s because it is more difficult. 

Your brain is likely to see what it expects to see

“What we see depends to a large extent upon what we anticipate seeing” explained Dr Susan Barry in her Psychology Today article.

The neurons in our visual cortex are affected by higher brain centres which are involved in prediction and planning. When the brain can predict what it will see, it primes the circuits in the visual cortex and other regions. And so, often, we only see what we expect to see.

This is bad news when you are proofreading something – especially if you have been drafting, writing and editing it for a long time.

You know that you meant to write “xyz” so this is what your brain sees. It doesn’t register that “xyyz” is what you’ve actually written.

So, what can you do about it?

Trick your brain into seeing your work with fresh eyes 

In order to proofread your own writing properly, we need to see what’s really on the page – not what we think is there.

Obviously, a good night’s sleep helps considerably. It gives us a bit of distance from our work and stops us reading and re-reading it until the words blur together.

But we can’t always wait until tomorrow. And, even when we do, we’re still looking at something we’ve seen multiple times before.

So, you might find it helpful to actively disrupt your brain’s expectations by making your overly-familiar writing unfamiliar again.

And, ideally, you should try to involve additional senses, so you are not relying purely on your vision.

#1 Make it look different

Print out your writing. It will look different on paper and this will help you to see it better.

Some writers change the font style or size so the words they are proofreading are in a different position on the page to the words they wrote.

#2 Read it out loud 

Reading your writing aloud while you proofread doesn’t take much more time or effort than reading it silently – but it’s a great deal more effective.

Use your normal speaking voice if you can. This technique works best if you can actually hear the sound of your words.

If you need to be quiet, try whispering – even a soft sound helps. If whispering is still too loud for the people nearby, then just move your lips. The process of forming the words with your mouth will help you to hear them better in your head.

Try to speak slightly more slowly than you usually do so that you can focus on each word. 

And turn off your music or radio so that other noises are not distracting you. 

#3 Point as you read 

Point at each word with your pen or cursor as you say it. This helps you to maintain your focus on every individual word.

Also, the physical form will engage your sense of touch, so you are now using three senses, not just one. 

Pointing is particularly good for spotting missing words or words that should have been deleted but weren’t. 

#4 Work somewhere else 

By deliberately creating differences between how you wrote the piece and how you are proofreading it, you’ll help your brain to see your writing more clearly.

You don’t need to go too far. Another desk in your office or a table at a nearby café should work well.

#5 Watch out for the errors that you are most likely to miss

Some mistakes are particularly difficult to spot because your brain has strong expectations about what it is going to see.

So, keep a sharp eye out for:

  • errors in the passages that you’ve edited the most
  • words that sound the same but are spelt differently (e.g. they’re, their and there)
  • words you should have deleted when you were editing (e.g. “they haven’t not completed the forms yet”)
  • small words that are missing, especially in sentences with lots of two, three or four-letter words (e.g. we flew Rome on British Airways)
  • over-used words that jar through their repetition (e.g. After Tom was handed the reins of the firm, he reined in spending)
  • mistakes in headings and sub-headings – weirdly, you are likely to skip over them when you are proofreading even though you pay most attention to them when you are reading

When it’s really important, ask someone else to proofread too 

A person who is new to the project will, by definition, see your writing with fresh eyes.

They should be able to spot mistakes and problems that are hidden from you.

You could call on a colleague who is a stickler for grammar and punctuation. Or, for only a small fee, you could bring in a freelance proofreader to give your writing a thorough going-over.

If you are producing something that’s particularly important, like a major report, it’s well worth the additional time and cost.

Margaret Webster is a freelance copywriter and business writing coach. She also is also a CIPR trainer for Grammar & Proofreading Skills which is next running on 4 December.

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Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

  1. I’m going to send this to my teenage son! Another tip I was taught by a newspaper editor – also proof read it backwards, that way you can spot errors in specific words.

  2. [* Shield plugin marked this comment as “0”. Reason: Human SPAM filter found “great article” in “comment_content” *]
    Great article, Margaret. I’ll be following your rules next time I need to proof my own writing. Thanks for your help. Gavin 🙂

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