Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Jan K., The Proofer
Return to Polishing Your Prose · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
Spellcheckers are wonderful things. I'll be honest; my spellchecker has saved my keister a time or two. Being a proofreader by profession, you'd think that I would catch "everything." I'm here to tell you that I'm only human and there are things that have slipped by me. My spellchecker and thesaurus have also helped out when I'm immediately stumped on a word or need a good juicy word to really drive home a particular point I'm trying to make. It's easy just to check on a single word for a quick reference. However, you should do this sparingly and only when your brain is really stuck. For the most part, just go ahead and write the thing; let it flow along and don't worry about the little oopsies that might be tripping off your fingertips. That's why it is a cardinal rule of mine that nothing leaves my word processor until spellchecker has been run -- twice.
This doesn't mean, however, that you can rely on your spellchecker as your only document check. The English language (especially Americanized English) has multiple layers of nuances and word usages that perhaps no other spoken language has. Our language is also littered with "sound alikes" (homonyms) such as: you're and your; its and it's; they're, their, and there; wood and would. If it's spelled right but used incorrectly, then it is not a certainty that your spellchecker will catch it. Another problem with spellchecker is that you might have a correctly spelled word (let's say "boost") when actually you wanted a totally different word (like "boast"). And what about horror words like lose and loose? Your spellchecker might blithely sail over these typographical faux pas without so much as a beep.
You must then practice the age-old process of reviewing and rereading your own work. This, surprisingly enough, can almost be as dangerous as relying on your spellchecker as your sole means of review. There are probably ten scientific terms for what happens in your brain when you reread your own work, but the simplified version is that you are "too close" to your own work. Your brain "knows" what it is you wanted to write and it can cunningly pretend that it "sees" the right words.
It is your "short-term memory" (STM) that creates this phenomenon. Somewhere in your brain, some series of synapses get loaded with the text you wrote in your head before your brain transferred it to your fingers and into the keyboard. If you create text like I do, extemporaneously, then your fingers are flying over the keyboard, lagging slightly behind your brain's capacity to think up the words. So, your STM is being pre-loaded with all the right words, but it's not a given that all the right words got banged out on the keyboard. If you review your own work too soon after it is written, then rather than opening up a new file and recording what is actually written, your brain will re-open its STM file and "read" the text from there. Your eyes will be "reading" the text -- but it's only for appearance's sake.
In order to maximize the likelihood that you will catch your own errors, omissions, and other verbal faux pas, you must let your STM "dump" (it's not called "short-term" for nothing!). After you have completed your text, or the section on which you are working, you need to get away from it. Leave the computer. Go mow the grass. Rearrange your sock drawer. Watch a movie. Sleep. Do anything other than work on that text. Give it at least an hour; the more time you can allow between writing and rereading, the better.
There are a few other tips that will help you to maximize the time you spend proofreading your own work. Before you start to proofread, however, do yourself a big, huge, you-may-be-glad-you-did favor: make a copy of the file and rename it "1st version" (or something snappy like that), put it on a disk, and then put that disk in the cabinet that's over your refrigerator. This will be your safeguard against you hitting some fatal combination of keys that makes your whole file go poof and disappear (and we've all had that happen... be honest). Now you are ready to start proofreading.
First, as stated, you need to put some time and mental distance in between you and the text you just finished writing. If at all possible, do something other than work on any text at all. Really give yourself a mental break. Second, when you sit down to proofread, don't read the text from start to finish. Pick and choose paragraphs or sections, and read the text haphazardly. This will help your brain to further ignore any lingering STM you might have. If your brain "stumbles" over a particular sentence, then read it aloud. That's right, put your index finger right under each word, and say the sentence out loud. Read it slowly. If there is actually some grammatical error, then this method should let you actually hear what is wrong (maybe the tense is wrong, or you are missing a conjunction, or -- heaven forbid -- you left a participle dangling!).
Third, and if you have the luxury of plenty of time, leave your text again and come back to it in another couple of hours. Then you can read the whole document start to finish. Look for text flow; read for context and content. You'll be surprised at the small tweaks you will still be making. Next, run spellchecker. There's little sense in running spellchecker before you do your own proofreading since there is the chance that while doing your proofreading and making corrections, you may be inadvertently creating new errors.
When you think you have a final draft, and if you are not having your text professionally proofread or edited, have someone else read it for you. Doesn't really matter who -- just corral a friend and get a pair of subjective eyes to read through it. Make sure you are prepared for that person to point out some final flaws (and correct the errors and say "Thank you" and get over the fact that you left a mistake). Once you've made these corrections, run spellchecker again. In fact, I advise that you run spellchecker every time you change or correct your "final" version.
There is just one last piece of advise about this process of proofreading your own work. At some point, you have to stop. You could probably tweak that document another couple of hundred times, but resist the temptation. If you follow the process I've outlined above, then you should have a really "final" draft. Don't be tempted to reread it again and again. You'll only start to second guess yourself, and make yourself crazy in the process.
Written communication skills are now in demand because increasingly more business is done via the Web and the Internet. Schools, colleges, and universities are scrambling to re-introduce critical thinking and writing skills into their curricula. More people are starting to work out of their home office and are communicating with business partners and associates via email. The written word, therefore, is becoming more important than it ever was. By using these tips, you can make sure your written really say what you mean for them to say.
For a list of reference books related to proofreading, copyediting, and the publishing industry, please see my recommended book list at http://janktheproofer.com/RecommendedBookList.htm
Jan K., The Proofer, is a full-time freelance proofreader and copyeditor. In business since 1995, she has enjoyed working for a diverse world-wide clientele, covering subject matter including academic research, medical law, consumer surveys, and self-help materials. Please visit http://www.janktheproofer.com for more information.