Proof-reading, say all the self-help books, is vital. A manuscript riddled with typos and grammatical errors conveys a lack of respect for yourself, your work, and your reader. It’s just sloppy, and there’s no excuse for it.
As a writer, I agree. It’s wince-worthy to re-read your manuscript after you’ve sent it – or worse, after it’s published – and notice a typo. Probably the only one in the whole piece, but it’s a dirty fly in your fragrant ointment: you’ll flinch at the mention of that piece for the rest of your days.
As submissions reader for a journal, I’m much more forgiving. It irritates me in passing to note a typo that hasn’t been weeded out of a submitted manuscript. I’m more bothered by an error of grammar or punctuation that doesn’t look like failed proof-reading – the writer simply doesn’t know it’s wrong. But to be honest, if the story’s marvellous, those details won’t bother me. They’re what editing’s for.
Let’s agree that rendering the manuscript pristine is desirable. Now we have a problem. It’s all very well for the gurus to urge “proof-read thoroughly, then proof-read again”. The human brain is not designed to proof-read.
Probably everyone on the internet knows this meme. The trick uses the brain’s self-organising skills against it. The numbers come first, and are light against a dark background instead of the more familiar dark on light: these features encourage us to see the numbers as more important than the sentence below. Our lifetime’s experience of school tests and Spot the Difference puzzles has accustomed us to the paradigm of task-plus-instruction, in which we process the instruction but focus on what appears to be the task. And long familiarity with written English, the brain’s capacity for auto-correction, and our perceptual bias towards closure, cause us to read what should be there rather than what actually is there. For most of us, reading is an over-learned skill – something we do automatically and can’t stop ourselves from doing (try not reading a billboard). Our unconscious mind, like a good butler, helpfully fills in the missing word or “fixes” the incorrect phrase, allowing our conscious mind to go blithely about its business never knowing there was a thing out of place. Great, for reading. Not great for proof-reading.
Of course you can choose to consciously pay attention to every word. That’ll last about three lines. The conscious mind quickly gets tired of doing a job it doesn’t usually do. We read for meaning, translating the words on the page into people and settings and smells and emotions and the gleam of a sword and the tension of what’s going to happen next. We don’t read to check if there’s one squiggly line on the page or two in the place where two squiggly lines are needed to correctly spell the word “squiggly”.
So, how can we proof-read more successfully?
1. Get someone else to do it. Sometimes it’s worth paying a professional copy-editor, who’s trained their conscious mind to notice squiggly lines. A friend, long-suffering partner or writing buddy may not be infallible, but they’ll probably do a better job than you. You’ve agonised over every word, rewritten every phrase two or three different ways; you’re bound to miss that “the” or “a” left over from a previous version. To fresh eyes, it will stick out like a broken finger. If you have three or four people proof-read, hopefully between them they’ll pick up everything.
2. If you’re not 100% confident of your spelling, punctuation and grammar skills, have someone more knowledgeable in these areas read your work. Don’t rely on your word processor’s spell-checking function. Your word processor has never read a novel, it can’t always spell and it definitely makes grammatical errors. I’ve had editors “correct” my work by taking advice from a spell-checker, and those corrections were wrong, so very wrong. You don’t need an algorithm, you need a pedant.
3. Read backwards. Begin at the end of the story and read each sentence in turn, working back to the beginning. You’re less likely to get caught up in the flow of the narrative and miss the errors on the page.
4. Start in the middle and do a paragraph. Then jump to an earlier paragraph. Then a later one. Keep going till you’ve proof-read the whole piece, completely out of order.
5. Read carefully and consciously, no more than a paragraph at a time, then take a break. Come back in a while and do another paragraph. And so on. Your proof-reading faculty fatigues quickly: keep coming back with it fresh, and stop before it gets lazy. Combine this strategy with 3, 4 and/or 6.
6. Read aloud. Combine this strategy with 3, 4 and/or 5.
7. Make sure you check the title, and any subheadings or captions. As the meme teaches us, we often read with blind spots. More than once I’ve seen a piece with pitch-perfect text, but some glaring titular error – in, of course, the largest font on the page.
How about you – what proof-reading strategies do you use?