When I was working on my master’s degree in English, I reached a point where I had finished my coursework but needed to find a job to help pay the bills while I wrote my thesis. As luck would have it, there was an opening at the university press for a proofreader, and I got the job. I figured the work would be a piece of cake; after all, I’d typically done well on my papers in college, and I’d just spent three years teaching Freshman English. But it only took a few days on the job for me to realize that there was more to good proofreading than just knowing the rules of grammar and punctuation.

Fortunately, my boss was a kind and patient man who was willing to teach me some techniques for catching errors, and I gradually became better at spotting mistakes before they went into print. And though I haven’t worked as a professional proofreader for many years, I have continued to use these techniques to eliminate distracting and embarrassing errors from my writing projects. Here are six “tricks of the trade” that can help you catch mistakes in your writing, too.

Sleep on it.

It is hard to evaluate what you have written without getting a little distance from it first. Whenever you can, it is a good practice to put your writing away at least overnight before pulling it out to proofread it. Once your brain has had a chance to take a break to think about other things (and maybe even sleep), you are likely to see spots where improvements are needed. There are times when you are up against a deadline and simply cannot do this—but if you can build some break time in before your final read, your writing will benefit from it.

Print it out.

If you’ve ever tried to pound out an essay on a typewriter, you know that the word processor on your computer is a gift from God. But your computer’s ability to swiftly move sentences and words at your command also makes it capable of creating typos from left-behind bits of words and phrases. If you have written your paper on the computer, try printing it out before you proofread it. Changing the format from your computer screen to a printed piece of paper helps you look at the words differently, making it easier to find typos lingering on the page.

Read it several times.

As a proofreader, I learned that it takes several passes to clean up an article or essay. The first time we read something, we tend to read for the meaning of the sentences, so this is the time to make sure that the statements follow a logical progression and make sense. Once you know what the piece is saying, you can go back and check for formatting errors and words underlined by your spell checker. On the third reading, you might want to look for specific punctuation or grammar errors. By focusing each read-through on a particular type of problem, you are more likely to catch mistakes that you didn’t notice when you were thinking about the content or typing mistakes.

Use spell check, but trust your dictionary.

Your spell checker tells you whether the words on your page are correctly spelled, but it does not tell you whether they are the correct spellings, given the context in which they are used. Words that sound alike (their, there, they’re) and words that look similar (desert, dessert) can pass through the spell checker without raising a flag. The best way to catch them when they are wrong is to keep a good dictionary on hand when you proofread—and use it to check whether the spelling you are using is really the one you want.

Look for common errors.

There are some errors that show up frequently in writings. The most frequent offenses include comma splices (when two complete sentences have been joined with just a comma) and pronouns that do not match the nouns to which they refer, especially group nouns (“The team threw their hats into the air”). It is also wise to learn how to use semicolons and colons properly—two forms of punctuation that are frequently misused.  Plus, everyone has his or her blind spots—the spelling on certain words, a tendency to use too many or too few commas, etc. If you gradually make a list of your own personal bugaboos, you can then proofread for those particular errors in your writings and catch them before it is too late.

Read it backwards.

To break free of the tendency to think about what is being said instead of how it is being said, try checking your paper backwards, from the end back to the beginning. It sounds counterintuitive, but proofreading your writing backwards can help you find mistakes without getting distracted by the ideas you are presenting. The result? A clean, well-written piece that will make a positive impression on your reader in every way.  

UMHB’s Department of English promotes the knowledge and appreciation of literature, introduces basic concepts of rhetoric and argumentation, and helps students master effective writing principles. If you are passionate about creative writing, communication skills, or critical thinking, we invite you to visit our website for more information.