No writer likes proofreading, but every writer must do it. Here are several approaches to tackling this tedious task.
The title of a post on The Write Practice blog caught my eye, “The Proofreading Technique that Will Change Your Life.” I was certain it was the Bottom Up and Backward technique. I was wrong. The technique outlined in the post is Reading Out Loud.
The post covers this useful technique (I can’t believe I didn’t think to write about it). I would add, playwrights, screenwriters and TV writers must, must, MUST read their work out loud. Dialogue must ring true and sound like real people talking. It can’t be real-life conversation because it has to function dramatically to move the story forward AND sound like real conversation. Reading out loud is the best way to hear it or not
Proofreading vs. Editing
Reading Out Loud is a great technique for checking tone, paragraphing, word use, voice and all the fun parts of re-writing; but it is not so great for proofreading. It’s best for short writes with short turnarounds.
I want to be very clear; I am talking about proofreading. Many writers lump proofreading and editing together as two sides of the same coin. They are not.
Proofreading is not editing and editors do not proofread.
Editors work in clarity, character and the nuances of story. They point-out where a piece sags and where it is brilliant. They note awkward sentences and unnecessary paragraphs. Usually, writers do not edit, although we sometimes call it that; writers re-write.
Proofreading is catching misused words, typos, grammar errors and those other pesky technicalities that make our writing clear to other people or not. Much proofreading can be done by a computer, but not all. Editing cannot be done by a computer.
Proofreading aligns the presentation of the written word with the rules of written English currently accepted by society.
Tips for Tackling the Tedious Task
Like anything else, practice makes perfect. The more you write, the more you proof the better you get.
I am a great proofreader of other peoples work, but not of my own. For some reason I can not fathom, I tend to leave out the most important word in a sentence and then not see it when I read it. My brain fills it in. The battle against words spell check cannot catch because they are not spelled wrong, is one I often lose; words like ‘your ‘and ‘you’re,’ ‘I’ and ‘A,” bowl’ and ‘bowel.’ Add to that, I’m a bad speller and proofreading is hair-pullingly maddening!
Proofreading is easier when you know your shortcomings. I know I do all these things; plus, I have a tendency to write a sentence, paragraph or scene backwards. It’s not easy, but I have learned to proof my own work to a degree.
Here are some techniques I use:
Don’t Proof Every Draft
This is a biggie even if it sounds obvious. It was not obvious to me for a long time. There was a time when I let people who judged my work by its typos get to me. As a result, I was determined to turn out only perfect copy.
I would write a paragraph and then meticulously proof it with Strunk and White and Webster’s by my side. I scoffed at computer aids and turned off spell and grammar check. I dug my heels in, “I was a writer, I had to know this stuff, damn it!”
Needless to say, I wrote very little during this time. This approach took all the fun out of writing and it became a constant chore. I thought because I could not turn out perfect copy, I was not a good writer and stopped writing for several years.
One day at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, a writer friend said something that hit home. Only proof a piece that you plan to show to others. As long you know what you intended does it matter if, “Brain threw a bowel thru a window.”? It is more important to push through to the end. Bingo!
Only proofread copy when re-writing is finished and other people are going to read it; otherwise don’t bother.
This is similar to Reading Out Loud. With my blog posts, most initial errors occur at line breaks in Scrivener. When I paste it into Grammarly, the line breaks are different and I catch a lot of mistakes by reading it on the Grammarly screen. I often get a 100% score in Grammarly.
With some posts, there is a lot of re-writting in WordPress. I always read out loud from the preview screen before hitting post.
For fiction, print it and then read it. This is not the time to conserve paper.
Read your work in a different format.
Forget About it
My work had to set for a week before I could read it and see what was actually on the page. Deadlines don’t allow this luxury. I taught my self to forget what I write almost as soon as I write it. I know this sounds odd, it does not mean to forget what you wrote, but how you wrote it. Forget the syntax, not the story.
This skill is not acquired all at once, it has to be worked at; get it down to a few days, then a day, then a few hours. It’s easier with non-fiction text like this; I can go for a short walk and then proof this fairly well. Fiction needs at least a day or more depending on the scope of the work and how excited I am about it.
When you forget it, you can read it as if some one else wrote it. This is how I proof my blog posts. Again, it’s not fool-proof, but I would say I catch 90% of my errors.
This technique is great for re-writing as well. When you re-read a chapter of your magnum opus and go “Huh?” It’s a good thing. It’s better you go, “Huh?” than the agent you are wooing.
Often this method is stated as, “Don’t hold your work to precious.” I think forgetting it is easier to understand because every word I write is precious!
Forget what you write, so you can see it with fresh eyes.
Use Grammar Checkers
I use both spell and grammar check and run my writing through Grammarly, my favorite grammar checker. Don’t be a martyr like I was and refuse to use them on principle. They do not catch everything, but they can help. Why not use them?
Today’s grammar checkers work well. Use them. But you must know your grammar because a computer cannot replace a human brain.
The Bottom Up and Backward Technique
This is a very old technique that dates back to the invention of the printing press and probably before. It is a simple, but tedious technique to perform.
Print your manuscript and read each page from the bottom up, right to left.
This allows you to focus on pure grammar and word use and not get distracted by sense and meaning. This is what professional proofreaders do.
For example, when doing this, you may find yourself starring at the word ‘bowel’ and thinking, “What’s that word doing in there?” When you read it forward, you read bowl as you intended. Reading it bottom up backward forces you to see what is on the page and it is bowel.
Generally, I only use this technique when preparing to send to a theatre, agent, head writer or editor because I hate it. I would rather have teeth pulled then do this. But it works and is the best self-proofing method out there.
Get a Proofreader
Before I send out anything I’m trying to sell, I have some one else proof it. And I don’t mean your mother. Find a grammarian or another writer who knows grammar, and format. Preferably one who enjoys pointing out mistakes. Keep in mind, you have the final say. If you think your proofreader is wrong, check the point yourself. Ask other writers for their opinions. Ask your middle school english teacher! (My middle school English teacher is one of my proofers.)
Hands down, the best proofing method is a new pair of eyes attached to a knowledgable brain.
Just Say Thank-you
You can do a few or all of these techniques and the first time your work goes out, the first comment will be, “On page 3, you have an A instead of an I.” Guaranteed.
This makes me angrier then anything else in the world, but it is bad anger. I make an effort not react from this anger. I tell myself, “Remember this person read your work.” I say, “Thank-you,” and try not to make an excuse or blame the proofreader. (My first instinct.)
Getting angry and arguing about grammar is futile. Learn to smile and say thank you even if the person is wrong. Don’t ever assume because some one tells you about a mistake they are correct. Often they are not. Thank them, note it, check it, change it or leave it. It’s up to you. They will never know.
Do you have a favorite proofing technique or way to make proofing fun? Any advice on how to handle the grammar police?
(LOL! Despite my best efforts, I had to make several corrections to this after it posted. I swear they jump in there while it’s sitting in the que!)