March is shaping into quite some month for advocates of accurate writing. Hot on the heels of National Grammar Day, today sees another mouthwatering date on the grammar geek’s calendar – National Proofreading Day!
Alright, so grammar and proofreading is a fairly dry subject for most of us. It’s not something that sets the creative juices flowing like developing plot, using new and creative words, or bringing ideas to life through writing. It is, however, an essential part of the process of putting together a complete and accomplished piece of written work.
When admiring a beautiful house from the outside, nobody ever says that their favourite thing about it is the mortar, but what if it wasn’t there? It’s needed to turn the house from simply a nice idea to a functioning, sturdy and complete structure.
Punctuation and grammar are the same – they should never be the first thing you notice about a written piece (unless they don’t work, in which case they will be!), but they’re what holds your writing in place. What’s more, it can be surprisingly satisfying when you’re able to find that clever, grammatically correct way to take what you’re trying to say and convert it into clear, coherent words on a page.
So, proofreading is extremely important, but as we discussed in last week’s articles, we’re often our own worst proofreaders. The way we read our own work is different to how we read someone else’s, because we remember writing it, we know what we were trying to say and we always know what’s coming next. This means that it’s easy for us to overlook a ‘that’ in place of a ‘than’, because our brains are seeing what we meant to write rather than what we’ve actually written.
If this sounds like something you might do, here are three suggestions on how to proofread your work thoroughly:
1. Imagine it’s somebody else’s work
When you finish writing a piece, step away from the computer for a moment or two, maybe have a coffee, and then come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes. Now try to imagine that it wasn’t you that wrote it, and that Editor You is about to give Writer You some useful input.
Don’t get too sentimental about anything Editor You picks up that doesn’t look or sound right. Writer You may have been proud of it, but you’re now taking it in as a reader rather than a writer, and that’s how your output is meant to be consumed.
Be sure to read individual words out loud. If you just skim-read, familiar phrases like ‘once it a lifetime opportunity’ may just be accepted by your brain, even though as an editor, you should’ve noticed that there’s an ‘it’ there instead of an ‘in’.
2. Get someone else to proofread it
Better than proofreading your own work is getting another person to look at it for you. We’ve all got that friend who is a bit of a word and grammar boffin, so why not try and enlist their help?
The advantage of this is that it truly is a fresh pair of eyes, and a fresh set of editing and grammatical knowledge. Not only might they pick up on errors you hadn’t noticed, but they may identify mistakes you weren’t even aware of.
3. Use a text-to-speech tool
If you aren’t in a position to get your piece proofread by another person, something I’ve done now and again is got the computer to read my writing back to me. It’s not a perfect technique and you do have to listen carefully to a rather monotonous computerised voice, but the idea is that even if you don’t see errors, you might be able to hear them.
Sites like TTSReader.com allow you to cut and paste text, or even drag across text documents to be read out loud. Most modern computers have a speech facility built into them too; if you use a Mac, go to System Preferences – Dictation & Speech – Text to Speech, and you can set a keyboard shortcut that will read out any highlighted text when keyed in. You can choose from a range of voices and accents, including a few novelty ones where you can have your work baaed by a sheep or even sung to you. This is probably not advisable if you want to proofread (or proof-listen) seriously, though!
Listen intently and read along with the computer voice. It will probably mispronounce some words, but it should help you pick up on some of the small typos that often slip our attention.
For more advice on becoming an accomplished writer, why not try out one of our courses? With the ‘Freelance Writing for Business’ course currently available for a bargain £29 (usual price £295) with the discount code WRITER, you’d be no fool to pick up some proofreading pointers from us.