How to proofread. 12 steps to perfect copy

You’ve planned, done an outline, written a first draft and edited. Are you done? Not quite. The last thing you need to do is proofread. And here’s the easiest way to do it.  

1. Take a break
Preferably not a three hour one down the pub. But even a 15 minute break will refresh your eyeballs and help you spot errors more easily.

2. Print out your work 
Yeah, I know it doesn’t do much for your carbon footprint. But it’s essential you print out a hard copy. It’s just so much easier to find errors reading from paper than a screen. It just is. Dunno why.  

3. Read out loud
Read your work out loud. And slow-ly. This will make you read each word individually, and make it easier to find mistakes and poor sentence structure. Remember, if you’re stumbling over the words, chances are your reader will too. Warning: you may have to stand in the corridor or board room for this one. 

4. Read backwards  
Your brain is really clever. No, really it is. So it will always try and make sense of what you’re reading. So take the word out of context by reading your document from the bottom backwards. This will confuse your poor ol’ grey matter and make it easier to spot errors.

5. Work with a ruler
Keeping the ruler just below the line you’re reading will force you to slow down and focus on each word individually. Good news: you’ll find mistakes. Bad news: you’ll look like a six year old. But who cares if you produce perfect copy.

6. Touch each word
By touching each word with a tip of a pencil you’ll have to read really really slowly. Again, this will make it easier to find those pesky typos.

7. Check dates
PCs have an annoying habit of autocorrecting dates when you’re not looking. So make sure you check your dates carefully for consistency.

                        28th July 1972
                        28 July 1972  
                        7.28.72 (US)

8. Check names and titles
Check the spelling of people’s names. And check titles. Is a person doing the same job throughout your document? And remember, titles shouldn’t have capitals unless they’re before the person’s name.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke today about the economic crisis
Gordon Brown is the prime minister of the UK
Jeff Turner, vice president of sales, spoke at the conference

Titles should be lower case if there’s no name attached.

The president of the company is an Oxford graduate
The managing director is on holiday

9. Check for abbreviated company names
At the beginning of a document, a company name should be spelt out in its entirety followed by its abbreviated form in brackets.

Structural Analysis Service Solutions (SASS) had a £100,000 turnover in August

The company can then be referred to in its abbreviated form throughout the rest of the document. 

Unless it’s something well known like the UN or the BBC. 

Watch out for odd brand names like Harrods, Currys and Boots (which are now all ‘apostropheless’)

10. Check for the second brackets or quotes 
If you’ve “quoted” somebody or put something in (brackets) make sure the final speech mark or bracket is there.

11. Check formatting
Check your spacing between paragraphs, between lines (single or 1.5?) and between sentences. Old school typists leave a space between sentences.  Like this. You shouldn’t.

Check headers and sub heads. Are they all in bold, same colour, same font?

Check fonts. Size, type and colour. Are they all the same?

12. Get someone else to read it
And finally, if you can, right before your document ‘goes to press’, get someone else to read through your work. Annoyingly, they’ll probably spot an error straight away. But it does mean you’ll get perfect copy.

Got any tips on proofreading? Let Turner Ink know.

  • Michael Leis
    Posted at 14:44h, 18 May Reply

    Great list. Especially like #4: I thought I was the only person who reviewed copy from bottom to top, and right to left! Great to make sure the structure of the message is good. Glad to see someone else is as backwards 🙂

    • Sarah Turner
      Posted at 14:50h, 18 May Reply

      Thanks Michael. Trust me, I used ALL of these tips for this post!

  • Horus
    Posted at 11:34h, 07 July Reply

    Hi Sarah,
    great site, and good tips, all of them.

    I struggle with punctuation in headings – even in this very post. If you compare the headings from your various blog entries, you’ll see there’s some inconsistency regarding punctuation (paticularly with full stops). Is there a system that you use, or is it something intuitive? In this entry, you chose to close ‘How to proofread.’ with a full stop, but ’12 steps to perfect copy’ without. (Incidentally, doesn’t best practice advise against beginning sentences with a figure?) Personally, I would prefer a colon, as in “How to proofread: 12 steps to perfect copy.”

    Anyway, what led me here relates to the grammatical nature of ‘How to’. I proofread a lot of Eastern European translations, and they persistently use “How to …?” (with an interrogative mark) The reason for this is because many languages do not use word order to distinguish between questions and statements in the same way that English does. I struggle with this because in my view this is not a question, but a fragment.

    What do you think? Is it ever justified to close a “How to …” with a question mark?


    • Sarah Turner
      Posted at 13:36h, 15 July Reply

      Hey Horus
      WIth headings don’t use a full stop at the end but do use a question mark or exclamation mark if appropriate. And do punctuate within the heading.
      So, How to proofread: 12 steps to perfect copy – punctuation within, no full stop at the end
      Keep calm and carry on: a slogan for our times? – Punctuation within and a question mark at the end
      Apple think different. Or should that be differently? – Punctuation within and a question mark at the end

      Numbers are fine at a beginning of a sentence. But try and make it an unusual or an odd number rather than 10.
      7 ways to be followed on Twitter
      18 ways to stay focused at work
      89 reasons I love being a freelance copywriter
      (these are all real headings!)

      As for How to….. you’ve got it. How to is a statement, an explanation.

      So, How to do things
      How to learn English
      How to shower
      (these are real too!)

      But How will you measure your your life?
      How does Dyson make water go uphill?
      How is Ed Milliband doing? (Badly!)
      All questions, so end in a question mark.

      Hope that helps a bit. 🙂

  • F1gur471v3ly 5p34k1ng? How your brain reads words made of numbers « Copywriting Blog from Turner Ink
    Posted at 12:29h, 10 February Reply

    […] Ideally, what you need is a proofreader to proofread all your work. Or for a cheaper option follow these 12 Steps to Perfect Copy. […]

    • nataraj t n
      Posted at 12:59h, 18 September Reply

      F1gur471v3ly 5p34k1ng? Good example of a Brain Study: If you can read this you have a strong mind
      F1gur471v3ly 5p34k1ng?

      Good example of a Brain Study: If you can read this you have a strong mind:

      7H15 M3554G3
      53RV35 7O PR0V3
      H0W 0UR M1ND5 C4N
      D0 4M4Z1NG 7H1NG5!
      1MPR3551V3 7H1NG5!
      1N 7H3 B3G1NN1NG
      17 WA5 H4RD BU7
      N0W, 0N 7H15 LIN3
      Y0UR M1ND 1S
      R34D1NG 17
      W17H 0U7 3V3N
      7H1NK1NG 4B0U7 17,
      B3 PROUD! 0NLY
      C3R741N P30PL3 C4N
      R3AD 7H15.

      This Message Serves to Prove How our minds can do amazing things! Impressive things! Inthe beginning it was hard but Now, on this line your mind is reading it automatically with out even thinking about it, be proud! Only certain people can read this.

      4 = A 1 = I, 7 = T 0=o 5=S 3=E like.

  • Binky Melnik
    Posted at 22:39h, 08 July Reply

    Rather than reading out loud (#3), instead have your device read t out loud to you. We tend to see what we expect to see, but when our tablets, computers, or phones read our text out to us, errors immediately become completely obvious (“What the hell was THAT?!”). I find this roots out at least 90% of my errors.

    (It still won’t find errors like “they’re/their/there,” but oftentimes our software will, noting it with a red underline or similar.)

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