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How to Proofread
By Paul Krantz

A friend of mine, a lover of all things French, posted this simple yet eloquent snippet of prose in her garden. To experience its maximum poetic effect, please read the sign ALOUD now:

Paris

Did you just say “Paris in the Spring”? Or, did you say “Paris in the the Spring”? If not, take a closer look at the sign.

Why do so many of us miss that second “the”? Because we know what the sign should say. And that leads us to the first of three simple rules that can ensure your proofreading catches the sort of little (and big) errors that diminish your credibility and tarnish your brand.

Rule one: Seek fresh eyes

You are your own worst proofreader because you know what you meant to say. And that’s exactly what you’ll see. So before you’re last File Save, run spell check (and grammar check if available), then seek out someone who hasn’t already seen your text. You don’t need a professional, just a trusted co-worker, a spouse or a friend – or even all three. (One of my clients routinely has 4 or 5 proofers for every word in her magazine at each round of production.) In my own experience, I found that some of the best proofers are smart college interns, who are particularly brutal on ill-advised attempts at injecting pop culture references into my prose. Most important, fresh eyes will spot leaps of logic, words you routinely misspell and minor inconsistencies in the way you present your ideas. Speaking of inconsistencies:

Rule two: Know the house style

House style is the set of rules you use to ensure that information is presented in a consistent manner. For example, do you omit serial comma (the comma before the “and” in a series of three or more items?) (“I had toast, eggs and juice for breakfast.”)? Are subheds in title case (all words capped) or sentence case (just the first word capped? When do you spell out numbers, and when do you use numerals?

There are many free style references online, or you can shell out $15 for the online version of the widely used AP Stylebook. Whatever your source for house style, it’s worth creating a one- or two-page summary of the most important elements that you can give to your proofers. If appropriate, be sure to include words or terms that are peculiar to your business or company. That way, your proofers won’t have to ponder why you used “colour” instead of “color.”

Rule three: Read three times

I recommend a three-stage read for all proofing jobs:

1. Read for sense. This is straight read-through, but a bit more slowly than you typically read. You want to read each word, with an emphasis on the meaning of each sentence. Does the text make sense? Does each sentence relate logically to the sentences before and after it? Do verb tenses match the nouns? Does each paragraph flow naturally from what has come before? Remember, you don’t have to fix the problems, just note them in the margin.

2. Read for mechanics. This time, you are focusing on individual items rather than the whole. Does the text follow the house style? If writing for press rather than web, are quotation marks and apostrophe the “curly” style; if writing for the web, are they “straight?” Are there extra spaces between words or sentences?

3. Read for references. Especially in longer texts, check that references are consistent throughout. For example, if you called “Jane Doe” a dietician in the first reference, don’t call her a “nutritionist” in later references. Also check that she hasn’t morphed into “Jane Doh” on page 3. If your text refers to a sidebar (See “What is celiac disease, below), be sure the sidebar is actually below the reference. Also check all page references, including jumps, for accuracy. This is also a good time to do a final check of any statistics in the text that you have references to verify against.
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