How to Proofread Your Own Work if You Have No Other Choice

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By Cynthia Dalton
Don’t ask me to proofread my own writing. I always end up seeing what I thought I wrote! — Grammarly Cards

Why It’s Not Easy to Proofread Your Own Writing

There are a lot of reasons why it’s easier to proofread someone else’s writing and more difficult to proofread your own writing. To catch all those pesky typos and grammatical mistakes you’ll need to be extra careful because:

  • You’re so familiar with your subject that you subconsciously proof your content, rather than paying careful attention to your punctuation, spelling, and syntax.
  • You may be too trusting of computer programs designed to check for spelling and grammar.
  • You may be typing words that you didn’t mean to type that might not be questioned by a computer program because the difference is too subtle. For example, you meant to type “bathe” but you actually typed “bath.”
  • You may be experiencing fatigue with the whole process and aren’t paying enough attention to details in spite of your best intentions.
  • You’re trying to proofread too soon after you’ve written the material. Ideally, it’s better to wait a day or two so that you can approach the material with a fresh pair of eyes.

Don’t be too hard on yourself, it happens to everyone. And sometimes, your typos are actually a sign of great intelligence. In his article for wired.com, What's Up With That: Why It's So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos, Nick Stockton explains why:

The reason typos get through isn't because we're stupid or careless, it's because what we're doing is actually very smart, explains psychologist Tom Stafford, who studies typos, of the University of Sheffield in the UK. "When you're writing, you're trying to convey meaning. It's a very high level task," he said. As with all high level tasks, your brain generalizes simple, component parts (like turning letters into words and words into sentences) so it can focus on more complex tasks (like combining sentences into complex ideas). "We don't catch every detail, we're not like computers or NSA databases," said Stafford. "Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning." When we're reading other peoples' work, this helps us arrive at meaning faster by using less brain power. When we're proof reading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it's easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. The reason we don't see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.
Generalization is the hallmark of all higher-level brain functions. It's similar to how our brains build maps of familiar places, compiling the sights, smells, and feel of a route. That mental map frees your brain up to think about other things. Sometimes this works against you, like when you accidentally drive to work on your way to a barbecue, because the route to your friend's house includes a section of your daily commute. We can become blind to details because our brain is operating on instinct. By the time you proofread your own work, your brain already knows the destination. This explains why your readers are more likely to pick up on your errors. Even if you are using words and concepts that they are also familiar with, their brains are on this journey for the first time, so they are paying more attention to the details along the way and not anticipating the final destination.

How to Proofread Your Own Writing

Of course, it’s better to have someone else proof your work but sometimes this just isn’t possible. Mignon Fogarty, of quickanddirtytips.com suggests the following:

Read your work backward, starting with the last sentence and working your way in reverse order to the beginning. Supposedly this works better than reading through from the beginning because your brain knows what you meant to write, so you tend to skip over errors when you're reading forwards.

Read your work out loud, this forces you to read each word individually and increases the odds that you'll find a typo. This works quite well for me, and most of the typos that make it into my transcripts seem to be things you wouldn't catch by reading aloud, such as misplaced commas.

Always proofread a printed version of your work. I don't know why, but if I try to proofread on a computer monitor I always miss more errors than if I print out a copy and go over it on paper.

Give yourself some time. If possible, let your work sit for a while before you proofread it. If you are able to clear your mind and approach the writing from a fresh perspective, then your brain is more able to focus on the actual words rather than seeing the words you think you wrote.

Here are some additional suggestions:

  • Do your proofreading when you’re rested and not in a hurry to do something else.
  • Work on your proofreading in an environment free from distractions or use noise-canceling headphones.
  • When you’re proofing from a hard copy of your writing, use a seven-inch ruler in a dark color to guide you through your writing word by word and sentence by sentence.
  • Use a red pen when you correct mistakes on a hard copy. Otherwise, when you go to your computer file to fix the mistakes, you might not catch them all — a red pen is your “red flag” for errors.
  • Read syllables, not words, to catch mistakes within longer words with many syllables.
  • Avoid rushing. If you feel yourself drifting off task, take a break to re-center yourself.
  • Use Read Aloud (Alt+Ctrl+Space) in Word. The electronic voice will read your work to you, which can give you a fresh perspective allowing you to catch small (but important) mistakes you might otherwise have overlooked.
  • In addition to Spelling and Grammar check on your computer, use other spelling and grammar tools available (many for free) online but always follow-up with your own proofreading. This gives you a double-check of sorts.

Be Patient with Yourself

Most importantly, be patient with yourself. Anyone who writes is going to have errors in their writing that need to be corrected. It just goes with the job. The good news is, the more you write and proofread, the better you’ll get at doing it. When you’ve proofed enough of your own writing, you’ll be aware of common mistakes that you repeatedly make and you’ll know to look for them.

What do you think?

  • Do you experience trouble proofreading your own writing?
  • Do you prefer to proofread your own writing rather than have someone else do it?
  • Do you have any favorite tips for proofreading one’s own writing?

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