GUIDE

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proofreading to perfection

Proofreading

“Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.” — Patricia Fuller

We’re pretty open-minded, but we generally recommend that writing be at least partially dressed before sharing it with the world.

Now that just about everyone is a writer, just about everyone is a proofreader too, when you think about it. Which is why we believe now is the time to get clear about what exactly proofreading entails in our modern world.

What is proofreading?

Proofreading refers to carefully checking for writing and formatting errors in a text before it’s published. It’s the final step in making sure a piece of writing is as close to “perfect” as possible by double-checking for punctuation and spelling errors, typos, and any inconsistencies.

The most important purpose of writing is to communicate your thoughts effectively. This, however, is better suited for the editing phase, not the proofreading phase. While proofreaders will check for clarity in consistency, they’re more focused on minor errors that may have slipped through.

When you proofread, you evaluate the content in what will be its final, published form, or a proof. (Get it now?) Proofreaders look at more than just the words — they’re scanning for any formatting errors as well. Proofreading marks are either made on paper, or in comments and digital notes in Google Docs and word processing software, to alert the writer of suggested corrections within a document. There are both US and UK English conventions for proofreading.

The final step of any personal or business writing process, proofreading is the process of identifying and correcting spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors.

The difference between proofreading and editing

It’s important to note that proofreading and editing are not the same. Editing involves a different skill set and is usually more time-consuming. Though there are various stages to the entire editing process, copy editing and proofreading are the two most common. Coincidentally, they’re also the two that get mixed up the most.

Though developmental, structural, and line editing all deserve their time and place, they’re seen less frequently in the world of digital content creation. These parts of the editing process are better reserved for lengthier works, such as books, investigative journalism, essays, instructional works, and magazine articles.

The terms copy editing and proofreading are often used interchangeably by those not familiar with the space. These two are not the same, though, and it’s crucial to be aware of their differences if you’re anyone working with written content.

Copy editing
Copy editing takes place before proofreading and involves a more thorough shake down of the content at hand. Copy editors will look for things such as readability, grammar, spelling, style, syntax, and punctuation depending on what style guide they’re following. In this stage of the editing process, it’s okay to offer revisions that will require additional writing.

Examples of what a copy editor might comment:
Point out wordy sentences, suggest change in word choice, fix punctuation marks in a sentence.

Proofreading
Proofreading occurs after copy editing. Though proofreaders look for grammar and punctuation, they’re also focused on the overall formatting of the piece. They’re the last set of eyes before publication, so it’s their job to ensure the text is as close to perfect as it can get. No drastic changes will happen here — that’s the job of all the editors who came before.

Examples of what a proofreader might comment:
Fix bad line breaks, change improper punctuation, point out incorrect page numbers.



How to proofread

Traditionally, proofreading is meant to be a relatively rapid and focused process of making sure writing is free of minor errors, such as typos that may have occurred during a more rigorous round of editing.

For online publishing and blogging — which often includes transferring of content from a word processing document to a CMS (content management system) — proofreading includes making sure that formatting is correct.

Adhering to a style guide — whether that be the Associated Press Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, or your own — is another vital part of the process. Consistency is key, and proofreaders need to be aware of what rules to follow for the given copy.

Common things to double-check when proofreading

  • Links function properly and direct readers to the right pages
  • Words — especially names and organizations — are spelled correctly
  • Formatting appears as it was intended — bolds, italics, indentations, new paragraphs, and fonts are correct
  • Proper punctuation is used throughout
  • Capitalization is correct
  • No “bad breaks,” such as widows or orphans
  • Helpful information such as an FAQ section exists
  • Consistent tenses throughout the piece
  • No subject-verb agreement issues
  • Headline or email subject is clear
  • Citations match the brand style guide
  • No misplaced or misused commas
  • Voice and style are consistent throughout

When is the best time to proofread text?

The best time to proofread is during every project’s final stage, after revisions are done and copy editing has been completed. Proofreading is the last step. If you’re wondering what time is the best, we advise after morning coffee and before your deadline.

Because the proofreading process is intended to be the final step before publishing or hitting “send,” the changes should be relatively minor — meaning, catching typos or errors that may have slipped by. In other words, proofreading is not the phase where you should be completely reworking a paragraph or changing the direction of your main points.

Proofreading is not the time to decide that you’ve changed your stance on an important topic — that kind of change should happen during the initial planning, thesis-writing, or outline phase of your writing.

In this stage, you also shouldn’t completely overhaul a piece of writing from, say, a 1,500-word blog post to a 3,000-word help article. That work should have been done during the developmental editing phase.

Top proofreading techniques and tricks

Ask someone else to proofread for you
Get a pair of fresh eyes on your writing. After spending so much time on your work, you’ll be apt to accidentally glaze over errors and typographical errors. It’s like a crooked painting in your house — you don’t notice it until someone else points it out.

If you have to proofread your own work, step away
Close your document, shut down your computer, and take a break from staring at the screen for a few hours (the longer, the better). Go for a walk, sip some coffee, and you’ll have a fresher set of eyes when you return.

Focus on one thing at a time
When you’re on high-alert for every type of proofing error, it’s easier to miss some mistakes. Instead, try combing a paper only for punctuation, then again for spelling mistakes, and so on.

Come back to it if you’re tired
Don’t ever try to proofread at the end of the day when your attention span is nil, and all you want to do is sleep. Sleep on it and try again in the morning. Proofreading with a set of sleepy eyes is as good as not proofreading at all.

Print it out
Editing a hard copy — and not a digital one — will help you see your writing from a different perspective. It feels different, and putting pen to paper feels more substantive and also satisfying.

Read it out loud
Reading your own writing out loud is a great way to catch any misspelled words or wonky sentences you might’ve missed before. While it might feel funny at first, you’ll find yourself noticing things such as run-on sentences that you wouldn’t have otherwise when reading it silently.

Allot two days to proofread
Ideally, proofreading should happen at least two days before a deadline. This ensures that you’ll have enough time to implement changes with one more round of proofing to come. Take into consideration the length of your writing — the longer it is, the longer proofing will take.

Use an AI proofreading tool
You can use an AI writing assistant to help with proofreading digital content. Nowadays, the top ones on the market are programmed to catch spelling, grammatical errors, and some even help you adhere to your style guide. For example, Writer uses AI to catch and correct common writing mistakes — as well as ones personal to your company’s style guide — and ensure your text is ready to share.

Proofreading example
Editors and professional proofreaders usually check a printed “proof copy” of the text and make corrections using specialized marks. In the digital realm, proofreaders work with AI writing assistants. Most of these online proofreading and editing services also include plagiarism checkers to identify duplicate content on the web and provide an efficient solution for the publication.



Improve your proofreading skills with Writer, for free

With edits occurring more frequently in the “tracked changes” on Microsoft Word or in suggestions on shared Google Docs, proofreaders find themselves doing their job digitally. And in a world flooded with copy and content, it’s crucial to ensure your words stand out, for all the right reasons.

Writer offers a free online proofreading tool so you can publish your text with more confidence and provide a better experience for your readers.

Writer is much more than just a spell check — think of it as your very own professional proofreader.

And if you’re looking to implement language and content consistency company-wide, Writer has that too. Take your proofreading up a notch by publishing a living, breathing style guide that Writer implements almost anywhere you produce copy. With terminology management, custom writing style rules, snippets, and more, you don’t ever have to worry about your content being flooded with errors.



Illustration by Daniel Zender

Level-up your writing with Writer,
your very own proofreader.