We have become a nation of skimmers.
We buzz through emails: delete, delete, save, delete.
We flip through social media: scroll, like, heart, share.
What does that do to proofreader skills? It’s a train wreck waiting to happen. Three minutes after your eBook goes live on Kindle you spot the first typo in the “Look Inside” feature. Ten minutes later you’ve gotten a one-star review: “Doesn’t this Bozo have a copy editor?”
To which your response may be, “Yes, but she’s out to lunch with Oprah’s chef and Jillian Michaels, the personal trainer.”
Welcome to the real world of self-editing.
But there are some ways you can train yourself to be a better proofreader.
First, recognize that we all make typing mistakes. There is a reason why the backspace, according to Microsoft, is the third most used key on the keyboard.
We make mistakes for a multitude of reasons: First, remember that in the course of writing several drafts of a full-length novel, you may put hundreds of thousands of words on the page. Some of these will be the wrong words.
Then there are brain-finger coordination problems: If you type-when-tired or worse, type-without-a-break, you’ll find “stutters” such as duplicate letters or duplicate words appearing.
And consider the mechanical issues such as sticky keys and cursors with a mind of their own, inserting your cut-and-paste in the middle of the wrong paragraph.
So when it comes to proofreading your work, don’t be insulted if there are a lot of errors. Accept that you’ll need to put out some effort to catch typos.
STRATEGIES THAT WORK
Luckily I’m a mystery writer, so I’ve got a lot of experience developing strategies to help me solve this particular “crime.”
Let me share a few strategies that I use.
1. Look for patterns of frequent typing errors
In order to change bad typing habits before they kick in, keep a small notebook at hand, and note when you backspace to correct an error. Look for patterns of errors: the kinds you are prone to make.
Or, turn off spell check for several pages, then recheck spelling with it on. What errors do you find? Those are the ones to be watchful for as you revise your drafts.
2. Trick your brain
One reason why mistakes jump out of a manuscript to a reader is that they are looking at them for the first time. Whereas to you, those sentences are old friends. You’ve seen them dozens of times!
So change what you are looking at. Use a different font, use double spacing of lines rather than single space. Transfer the manuscript to your Kindle reader and read it there. Print out a hard copy and proof it that way. It will be much easier on your eyes!
Try changing the music you’re listening to. I have one playlist for rough drafts, another for revisions, yet a third (a slow, Baroque one) for proofreading.
Change locations: if you always write at your desk with a favorite cup of tea, do your proofreading in a quiet library reading room.
3. Spell check is not always your friend
Let me give you two examples: first, the hyphen in a compound adjective such as “ten-cent price” may not be caught by spell check, as “ten” and “cent” are perfectly good words, correctly spelled.
Second, watch out for flagged duplicates such as “the the.” It’s nice that Word catches these for you, but if you really meant to type “in the,” deleting the first “the” without adding the “in” introduces an entirely new error.
4. Be aware of your reading speed
Surfing the internet? Warp speed! We typically spend about 59 seconds deciding whether a site is worthwhile, before making the decision to stay or leave.
Proofreading on the other hand is agonizingly slow. We aren’t worried about seeing the forest for the trees, we are down to the twigs on the branches. We are searching for the bug on the twig, the eyelash on the bug.
One way to slow down is to read backwards. Start at the end of your manuscript and read forward, one sentence at a time. I keep a favorite blue plastic ruler, just for this purpose. You’ll be surprised what you’ll catch.
5. Keep your keyboard clean
If you have pets, break out the vacuum occasionally to siphon the cat hair, dog slobber, and mouse lint out of your computer. Cleaner keyboards will cut down on sticky keys and stutters.
6. Watch your posture
I like to compose sitting in my easy chair with said cat under my elbow and my laptop at a rakish tilt. Guess what that does to wrist-on-pressure-pad inadvertent cursor jumps. I pay for my comfort when it comes to error counts!
7. Do macro-corrections
The key here is to look for mistakes, not the right words. For example, do a find-and-replace for double spaces after sentences, for quotation marks before a period or before a comma. Double commas or double periods are not uncommon when your revision takes out a word or switches the order of phrases within a sentence. The Word find-and-replace can spot these quickly for you.
If a character has the name Sandy, the first time you spell it “Sandi” mark the mistaken spelling down to do a quick find-and-replace on the mistaken spelling when you edit your manuscript.
8. Little words can be tricky
It’s not that we don’t know how to speak English. We do! The problem arises in multiple drafts when we change tense and don’t add that final “d,” or change nouns and miss transforming the “a” to an “an” or vice-versa.
Be especially vigilant for prepositions: they are so tiny that the brain sometimes skips right over them. For example, keep an eagle eye out for missing prepositions such as “to,” “of,’” or “in.”
Spell check can’t catch those missing words—that’s your job!
9. Set the timer
You do have a timer, right? Either Pomodoro on your computer or a hand model set way across the room so you have to get up to shut the darn thing off to give yourself a break when you are proofreading.
And once up, walk outside for five minutes, climb a flight of stairs, breathe deeply, or do a few toe-touches. The brain needs oxygen to focus.
While you are breaking, give your eyes a mini-rest as well. Focus into the distance, close them for a few moments, or dab in some eye drops.
10. Pay attention to headings and subheadings
Words look different when they are in all caps. A friend of mine got her book all the way to the proof stage at Amazon before she caught a spelling error on the book spine!
11. Use the text-to-speech feature of Word
You can find this feature by going to the help menu of Word for specific directions. I keep it handy on my tool bar where I can select about a page of the manuscript, click the icon, and this wonderful, calm, nonjudgmental male voice (I’ve christened mine “Bruce”) reads through my writing, word by word as I follow along, pen in hand.
12. Build in a reward
Proofreading is hard work. When you are done for the day, pamper yourself. Try a hot bath, a finger massage on your wrists, or soft music with a cold cloth over your eyes.
You’re darn well worth it, and your readers will thank you, too!
PS—Using the above techniques, when I proofread this post I spotted an extra word that didn’t belong, a missing Oxford comma, and six phrases that I wanted to change. Bruce caught a missing end-of-word “n” that I could have sworn I typed. 🙂