How to Proofread Like a Pro
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By Laurie Pumper, Communication Director

Want to feel like a kid again? Specifically, want to relive those awkward feelings of junior high, when almost everything was cause for embarrassment? Then send something to print without proofreading it. Errors in typography, layout and fact can all conspire to lower your credibility among your readers. Here are some tips to help you avoid those embarrassing moments.

  • Try to avoid proofreading on a computer screen. It’s hard on your eyes. Because of a computer’s flickering screen, you’re also more likely to miss errors. Whenever possible, print out a copy of the document and make your edits on the paper copy.
  • Try to get at least one other person to review your work. If you’ve already rehashed and revised a piece, your brain just won’t recognize some errors (dropped text at the end of an article, for instance). If you must proof your own work, let the piece rest for a few hours or (better) a few days. Give yourself a chance to “forget” what you wrote. When you come back to the project, you’re more likely to see those big, embarrassing errors!
  • Use a spell-check program — but don’t rely too heavily on it. Spellcheckers don’t catch it when you use a like-sounding word in the wrong place (i.e. there instead of they’re or their). It would be even more embarrassing if you accidentally left out the “l” from public (it’s still a real word, so your spell-checker probably wouldn’t flag it).
  • Check names and titles, even if it means calling someone to make sure you’ve got it right. Also look carefully at phone numbers, addresses, email addresses and web addresses for accuracy. It’s easy to transpose numbers and letters in these areas.
  • Always double-check headlines, captions, bylines and pull-quotes. These areas are especially prone to spelling errors, missing text or other problems.
  • If you need to compare edited text to the original material, it helps to set the two documents side by side. Use a ruler or a blank sheet of paper to help keep your place. It can also help your accuracy if you start at the end of the document and move backward through the text. Your brain is less likely to “fill in the blanks,” and you’ll catch dropped or duplicate words.
  • When proofreading a magazine or newsletter, double check the table of contents and story jumps to make sure the page numbers agree.
  • For e-newsletters, make sure that you try all the links if you direct readers to web pages, email addresses or to other sections of the newsletter.
  • Take frequent breaks. If you’re trying to proofread something when you’re tired, you will miss errors.

My favorite references:

Merriam-Webster online, www.m-w.com, is an easy way to make sure you have the right spelling or are using the right word. The site also features a thesaurus.

The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual is used by many, many newspaper and magazine editors across the country. There is an online version at www.apstylebook.com.

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association is the “bible” of style for many social service organizations.

Still other organizations, especially those with a scholarly or scientific bent, rely on the Chicago Manual of Style.

There are subtle differences among AP, APA and Chicago styles, including the use of commas and other punctuation.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss is an entertaining look at how to use punctuation correctly — and why it matters.

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