You've just written an important paper, business communique, or other
document that will be read by others and perhaps will be the basis for a
classroom grade, a prospective business arrangement, or provide necessary
information for a specific situation. Regardless of the end use of this
document, it is important to you that it not contain any errors or embarrassing
grammar and punctuation mistakes. You've run spellcheck, but you understand that
spellcheck isn't foolproof. Your document needs to be proofread.
Ideally, you need a professional proofreader (or some other objective person)
to read your document and correct whatever errors there might be in it. However,
time and circumstance are not always conducive to using a proofreader. When this
happens, you have to proofread it yourself.
Self-proofreading is fraught with pitfalls, the biggest of which is that you
are "too close" to the text. That is, you know what you meant to write, even if
that's not exactly what you did write. Your brain can easily fill in the gaps
and skim over simple errors like an incorrect wrong verb tense or a missed word
in a well-used phrase. The mechanism in your brain that does this is called your
"short-term memory"---and it can be very strong. Before you self-proofread, you
need to allow your short-term memory (STM) to "dump" (that is, to allow what is
stored in your STM to be deleted).
After you have finished your document---WALK AWAY. You need a minimum of 30
minutes between having finished the document and proofreading it. It is best if
you do something that is completely disassociated with that document: work on
something else that has no connection to the text in your document, go for a
walk, make a few phone calls, or clean the cobwebs out of the corners of the
ceiling. Clear your head in any manner you wish, but be sure to do it.
When you are ready to proofread your own document, do not read it from start
to finish. It is best if you can print it; this will allow you to read it in
non-sequential order. Read the middle two pages first, go back and read the
beginning, and then read the last pages. Reading your text out of order will
make it easier for you to see what is really there instead of what you want to
As you read along, if you "stumble" on any particular sentence, then go back
and read it aloud. Yes---say the words. Better yet, put your finger under each
word as you say it. This technique will help you to "hear" the error (maybe a
wrong verb tense or a word that is missing). When you find an error (spelling,
missing word, wrong word, missing punctuation), mark it on the printed page. You
don't have to know proofreading marks---just use whatever shorthand you'll
After you have read your paper, out of order, make all the corrections that
you have marked. Be careful! It is really easy to insert that comma in the wrong
place (and I'm speaking from experience here!). Key in the correction, and then
review it on screen. Continue through your entire document, making all the
At this point, you should use "Find" to locate your trouble words. Perhaps
you always waffle about whether to use affect or effect. Maybe you know that you
often use it's when you should use its. Enter your trouble word(s) into the Find
field, and click on Find Next until you have gone through the entire document.
Now you need to rerun spellcheck. For a tip on how to reset spellcheck (so
that spellcheck will actually re-check the entire document, not just the changes
that you made), go to "How to Re-Set Spellchecker," at: (http://freecontent.janktheproofer.com/ResetSpellcheck.htm).
If time permits, walk away from this document again for 30 minutes. Since
you've already cleaned out the cobwebs, maybe it's time to rearrange your sock
drawer. Come back to the document and skim through it one more time. If your
brain stumbles over anything, read it aloud, put your finger under each word,
and check for wrong verb tense, missing word, wrong word, etc. If you change
even one thing, then you need to re-set your spellcheck and run it one last
Here's a final word of caution about spellcheck: Spellcheck does not always
suggest the right thing. That is, spellcheck might stop at its and suggest that
it is a commonly mis-used word, do you want to change its to it's. Don't get
"Change" happy. When spellcheck beeps, look at the correction it is suggesting
and then re-read the sentence in its entirety. If, in fact, you want to make the
change suggested, then do so. If not, then hit Ignore and continue on. Likewise,
don't get "Ignore" happy---every time spellcheck hiccups, review the change
being suggested, re-read the sentence in its entirety, and make a decision to
make the change or to ignore it.
There are many other ways that your computer can help you to produce a
document that is free of error. For other helpful articles, please go to my
index of Writing and Grammar articles at:
Through intelligent use of your computer's word processing software,
spellcheck, and your brain, you can produce an [almost] error-free document.
About The Author
Jan Kovarik, The Proofer is a freelance proofreader and copyeditor. Visit
http://www.jansportal.com for more information about Jan’s proofreading and
copyediting services and Jan's other free resources. Please visit Mom's Break (http://www.momsbreak.com/)
for free printable crafts and projects. © Copyright 2005. All rights reserved.
This article was posted on September 17, 2005