Editing and proofreading are vital for producing great writing. But where should you look? What should you change? As the most comprehensive editing and proofreading list on the Web, this list provides 100 tips to self-edit your work into professional shape.
The term editing covers a wide range of practices, from restructuring whole documents to recasting sentences. Proofreading is the final stage, when everything’s in place and you’re just looking for consistency of style and final errors.
This tips are divided into six logical sections, including:
- Practical Processes
- The Bigger Picture
- Sentence-level Editing
- Don’t Forget!
Let’s get on to the 100 best editing and proofreading tips for writers.
The first category, habits, includes general actions you should do regularly for effective editing and proofreading of any kind of writing.
1. Sleep on it
If you’ve been living with a manuscript for a long time, you lose objectivity. Editing and proofreading require a clear, objective mind. One way to get that state of mind is to sleep on it. Never try to do all your editing and proofreading in one day. Get a good night’s sleep and return to the manuscript the next day. Even for a short document that you finish writing in a few hours, look at it again the next day. Errors will jump out at you.
2. Look over the document at different times of day
I’m not a morning person, but I’ve found I get a fresh perspective on my work the next morning. If I’m slaving over a document all morning, however, it can be helpful to take a look at it again the next day at night. Vary these times and it’ll feel like a different document and you’ll see new elements.
3. Read your writing out loud
When you’re reading silently, your eyes can jump over the words on the page. This means you can miss errors or fail to realize your sentences are actually missing words. To self-edit properly, you need to read your writing out loud and listen to how it sounds. Your tongue won’t say a word that’s wrong or missing, and your ears will catch the mistake.
As well, any sentences that you find difficult to say out loud may be difficult for your readers. Fix those sentences.
4. Keep an error list
It’s helpful to keep a running list of your common types of writing errors. Some writers always miss the difference between “it’s” and “its,” or they type “effect” when they mean “affect.” If you are consistently making an error, write it down. Then when you get to the editing stage, search for it using the find feature in your word processor. This way you’ll correct the error and develop the awareness required to permanently banish it from your drafts.
5. Keep a list of difficult words nearby
Certain words always trouble me. I can never quite get “reminisce” right on the first try. I always forget whether it’s “modelling or modeling”? To save time, create a list of words that you find difficult and keep it by your side when you edit.
6. Give it time
Some writers devote little time in their schedules to editing and proofreading. The writing goes on forever, while the editing and proofreading becomes compressed into a few hours. You cannot catch errors, however, when you’re rushing through it. Schedule lots of time for the process.
7. Use a style guide from the beginning
Before you start drafting, determine your style guide. It may be the APA or MLA guide or the Chicago Manual of Style. Perhaps your organization has its own house style. Whatever it is, this style guide will help you ensure consistent spelling, capitalization, and formatting right from the start. That way you don’t have to spend hours at the end changing all of these element
8. Print it out in a different layout
The traditional double-spaced, single-column layout in your word processor is not the best way to proofread. We’re so used to it, but our eyes have to follow lines all the way across 6 inches or so. That’s why it’s helpful to change the layout size – perhaps to 4 x 8 inches – or use double columns to make the width of a line shorter. This can help you see errors better.
9. Avoid distractions when proofreading
Distractions will ruin your proofreading session. If you’ve got a child running around or a conversation between co-workers going on behind you, it’s almost impossible to concentrate. Find a quiet room without any access to the Internet and email. Checking email all the time pulls you out of the proofreading moment and then it takes time to rebuild your focus.
10. Be consistent in your changes
During editing, sometimes writers make changes to some part of a document but not all. They may replace short dashes with long dashes for the first 20 pages and then leave the short dashes for the rest of the document. Be consistent in the changes you make – if you change the style of something on page one, make sure you change the style of a similar thing on page 100.
11. Get a trusted friend to read your writing
Some people – particularly students – seem to think writing should be a solitary act. But in reality, you should share your drafts with a trusted friend to get opinions and suggestions. In the professional writing world, multiple levels of editing by different people ensure quality.
12. Don’t edit while you’re drafting
While editing is important, it’s best left until after you get all your ideas on the page. Write your drafts without judging them. Don’t think about spelling, grammar, or style while you’re writing.
13. Edit and proofread other people’s work
A way to develop your editing and proofreading eye is to edit other people’s work. This is a good opportunity to develop a relationship with an editing buddy. Share your work with each other regularly to improve it and also keep your editing and proofreading eyes sharp.
14. Don’t edit forever
While the editing stage is important, it’s also just a stage. And it’s a stage you need to get through reasonably quickly. Now, that amount of time depends on the document. Editing and proofreading a 200-page book will take much longer than a 10-page article.
But the perfectionists among us never want to submit anything to editors until it’s absolutely perfect. Do a good job, but you need to know when to turn it over to your editor, who will also make it better.
15. Use Track Changes in Word when editing
The Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word highlights any changes you’ve made to the document while preserving the original text. This way you can revert back to original phrasing if you change your mind. Always turn this feature on and you won’t become so scared about changing your phrasing permanently.
16. Use a red pen when proofreading on paper
When you’re typing in changes from a proofreading session, you may miss some of your markup suggestions if you used a pencil or black pen. Try using a red pen, and the corrections will glare at you – they will be impossible to miss.
17. Read other people’s great writing
People don’t read enough these days – at least not excellent books or magazine articles. But reading great writing is one way to see how to edit your own work. You’ll see new options for recasting sentences. You’ll find inspiration for new ideas.
18. Read a good grammar book
Grammar books aren’t the most interesting reading material. But a review of a grammar book once in awhile will help develop your knowledge of possible errors. It also keeps your editing mind fresh, as you remind yourself of what you’re looking for.
19. Hire a professional
If you’re really busy, there’s no shame in hiring a professional to do the editing and proofreading for you. Professionals can work magic on a rough draft. Find a suitable editor online – the cost is worth it.
20. Work that muscle
Find ways to keep your editing and proofreading muscle strong. Professional athletes know they must practice almost every day to stay fit and coordinated. It’s no different with editing and proofreading. When you get away from doing these tasks, you lose some of your sense for errors. If you have no writing of your own, edit a page on the web every few days to stay in top form.
21. Assume the mistake is all over
The first instance of specific mistake could be a sign of more to come. Indeed, the specific mistake may exist all over the document. Pause your editing and select the find feature in your word processor. Enter the error word or phrase and search the whole document. Get it out completely before you move on.
The following practical processes are specific actions you can do to increase your editing and proofreading effectiveness.
22. Edit on screen and then proofread on paper
A computer screen presents a barrier to proofreading. For some reason, our eyes and brain just don’t notice the letters and words on the screen very well. On the other hand, errors jump out at us from the printed page. Still, heavy editing is challenging on paper, where extensive pen marks may crowd out the actual sentences.
That’s why it’s best to do editing on the screen, where you can change sentences in an instant. But when that’s done, print out the document and do a final review on paper.
23. Read your sentences in reverse order
Catching errors can be challenging if you’ve read the document a few times already. That’s because your mind knows what’s coming next (or at least, what your brain thinks comes next). A trick to find a fresh perspective and see sentences anew is to reverse the order: read the last sentence, then the second-last sentence, then the third-last sentence, and so on.
24. Proofread your sentences slowly
When proofreading, there’s a tendency to rush because you feel near completion, but that’s a mistake. Even though you can see the end coming, it’s important to slowly read. That means seeing every word, digesting every sentence. Consider looking over sentences twice just to be sure.
25. Look for one type of problem at a time
Don’t go into editing or proofreading attempting to find every problem in one pass. It’s hard for our brains to remember a long list of editing and proofreading categories. Instead, make multiple passes through the document. For example, you could choose to look only for wordiness or only for punctuation. This approach keeps your mind focused. If you look for every possible error in one pass, you’re more likely to miss errors.
26. Edit the big stuff first, small stuff second
Avoid checking spelling or changing around sentences at the start of the editing process. Those micro aspects of your writing should be reviewed only after you’ve taken care of the big stuff. Big stuff may be plot, characterization, argument, order, and so on. Why care about a misspelled word when you may end up deleting the paragraph altogether or completely rephrasing it?
27. Academic footnotes and endnotes need love too
In academic papers, like a thesis, the footnotes and endnotes get shunted off to the bottom of the page or the end of the paper. Does anyone really read them? Likely only the most hardcore scholars care, but that’s enough to make sure they are correct. Given the small font size (usually 9 or 10 point), they can be hard to proofread. Consider increasing the font size just for the proofreading process, and then convert them back to 9 or 10 point.
28. Keep a checklist of elements to review
This is a long list of tips, and surely you’ll forget many of them during the editing process. That’s why it’s important to keep a list of elements to check. Then write a check mark next to each one as you finish it. This creates a sentence of accomplishment.
29. Turn off full justification
When editing and proofreading, turn off the full justification feature in your word processor that pushes text flush up against the right margin. When you use full justification, you can’t see extra spaces (which should be deleted). Also, you don’t see the lines as unique entities with unique lengths, which affects your editing vision.
30. Use a ruler when proofreading
Our eyes sometimes lose track of where we are on the page, and we see other sentences in our vision. That’s when it’s helpful to use a ruler in the editing process. Place the ruler below the sentence you’re editing – you’ll have perfect focus on those words.
31. Try different software when editing
Microsoft Word is a steady, classic word processor. But maybe you need to freshen up your software and see your document in a different light. That’s when a non-linear word processor is helpful.
The best one is Scrivener. Scrivener allows you to write in chunks and then move those chunks around into a better order – this is great for big picture editing. And this is just one of its many great features.
32. Re-read your changes
The worst thing you can do when typing in editing or proofreading changes is adding new errors. Usually these are typos as our fat fingers hit the wrong keys. If we’re not careful, we can move on to the next change without noticing the new mistake.
33. Read syllables not words
Longer words have three or often four syllables. It’s easy for your eyes to skip over those syllables, compressing the word down and missing errors (a letter in the middle of the word may be incorrect). On longer words then, slow down and read out each syllable. That way you’ll see if all the parts are correct.
These macro-level tips help you get your writing in order before attending to the finer details.
34. Locate your writing right away at the beginning
In fiction writing, there’s a concept of locating. Make sure your stories locate the reader immediately – where are the characters? If the characters just begin talking, without location context, the reader will feel confused. It’s the same with academic or research-based writing. People want to know the purpose of this writing fairly quickly. Give it to them.
35. Take care with your introductions
With just about any introduction to any kind of professional writing, you need to entice and attract the reader right away. It’s a competitive marketplace, and you can’t delay. If you find your introductions only gradually move into the subject matter, draw the reader in with a provocative statement in the first sentence or two.
36. Do more research
During the editing stage of research-based writing, you may suddenly discover an underdeveloped section. The easy way out is to tell the reader, “future work should examine X, Y, or Z.” But why not deal with those topics in your paper? Making it more complete will naturally require more research. This takes time, but it’s worth it.
37. Ensure the document has a spine
A spine in writing is some element that unifies all the paragraphs of the document, the way your spine holds you up. The spine could be an argument in an academic paper or a plot in a novel. The spine helps you decide what to include and exclude. Without a spine, academic papers and novels become random collections of research and storylines. Make sure everything you write is there to sense the spine.
38. Cut out the parts that aren’t working
Cutting is challenging work because often we are wedded to our writing. We think our phrasing is great or our ideas are priceless. But objective readers may disagree. Don’t force phrases or ideas into your writing when they don’t quite fit the argument or stream of thought. Remove them and consider them the spark for a new piece of writing.
39. Determine whether the document has a consistent tone
Tone is hard to describe, but it’s related to your approach as a writer. Some writers confuse readers by combining a serious tone about a subject with a comedic tone. Some writers write informally when a formal tone is required (see academic writing). Keep your tone consistent throughout the whole document, even in a 200-page novel.
40. Add in real-life examples, such as stories
Readers love real-life examples to explain abstract concepts. If you find your writing is getting too abstract, try to think of how you can relate it to real life. Your reader will instantly understand you.
41. Make sure you have evidence for your arguments
Academic writing and business recommendation reports should contain arguments. But sometimes writers don’t argue anything – they just present the facts. In these and other kinds of writing, an opinion or argument or point is not enough. Your writing requires evidence from credible sources. This evidence convinces through reason.
42. Fine tune your arguments by recognizing your opposition
If you’re writing an argumentative piece – maybe a blog post about a controversial topic – it’s important to recognise your opposition’s arguments. This allows you to understand what the other person is saying, and then tune up your own arguments. It allows you to push the argument forward by incorporating their criticisms into your own writing.
43. Bring together scattered thematic parts
In your writing, it’s easy to lose track of when and where you said something. Microsoft Word provides one page at a time on the screen, you may write about the same theme in many places in a long document. That’s why it’s important to look at the whole document thematically. See if you’re writing about the same themes in different locations. If so, bring them together into one section.
Now let’s turn to the micro-level of editing: the sentences and words. This set of tips helps you recast sentences, making them tighter and clearer.
44. Remove dead verbs
Verbs are the most important words in a sentence. They move the writing along, as the people in the writing do things. But we often fall back into dead verbs – words that have no movement. The most common dead verbs are the various forms of “to be”: is, are, was, were.
What images or actions do these “to be” forms bring to mind? None. They always require more words to make meaning, so they’re inherently wordy. When possible, replace dead verbs with strong verbs: run, hit, walk, throw, and so on.
45. Weed the garden for wordiness and redundancy
Almost all writers write wordy first drafts. Go back through your draft and see if you can remove words, phrases, and even whole sentences to tighten up your writing. This makes life easier for the reader: the reader gets to the point faster.
It may be difficult to see wordiness in your own work. Sometimes it’s as small as phrases like “in order to” or “the fact that.” Sometimes it may look like this: “the paddle board is long in size” (if you say it’s long, there’s no need for “in size”).
46. Remove excessive adverbs
Adverbs modify verbs, and they are useful, but novice writers often overdo adverbs in a naïve attempt at description. Remember that when encountering adverbs, the reader must relate them back to the meaning of the verb. Done too often, this process becomes mentally annoying. Use adverbs sparingly.
47. Remove peppered adjectives
Similar to the caution about adverbs, excess adjectives annoy readers too. Some writers have a tendency to pepper their writing all over with these little words that modify nouns. Use adjectives to describe elements that need describing, not doorknobs and keys and tires and so on.
48. Convert negative statements into the positive
A writing teacher once told me to be positive in life and positive in writing. That means trying to avoid negative statements. Check your manuscript for negatives like: “He was not available until September” or “She wouldn’t not date him again.” These could be made positive by writing “I will be available starting in September” or “She would date him again.”
49. Focus your paragraphs
Many rough drafts contain paragraphs with no focus. Each successive sentence is on a different topic, and readers find this hard to follow. The sentences of a paragraph should all relate to a single point. Often this single point is expressed in the first sentence of the paragraph (called a topic sentence). It can be helpful to write down the point in a single word in the column next to the paragraph. Then examine each sentence and make sure it fits. If the sentence doesn’t fit the point, remove it and place it in a more appropriate paragraph (or start a completely new one).
50. Keep sentences shorter than 15 words
Generally speaking, the most difficult sentences for readers to process are long sentences. The occasional long sentence is fine, but a succession of them weighs down the reader. Keep sentences shorter than 15 words and they’ll likely be clear.
51. Make sure most sentences have just one idea
Readers can’t process many ideas simultaneously. That’s why it’s best to have only one idea per sentence. The period provides a rest, and then you can state another idea in the next sentence. Keep it simple.
52. Check that verb tenses are consistent
Some writers have a problem with changes in verb tenses. One second they’re writing in the present tense; the next second they’re writing in the past. It can be challenging because the writer may want to create a sense of current action about a past event. As a result, the writer moves incorrectly back and forth between the tenses, as staying in one requires strong mental concentration. For new writers, it’s best to stick to past tense for most purposes.
53. Look out for words that sound the same but are spelling differently
Homophones are words that sound the same but are spelled differently. Common ones include principal/principle, right/write, currant/current, draft/draught, and so on. When we’re writing, it’s easy for our fingers to spit out one when we mean the other. Author Bill Bryson has a wonderful book called Dictionary of Troublesome Words that lists many of these. Study these lists of words and watch out for them in your writing.
54. Check for the consistent spelling of names
A common error that pops up in the proofreading stage is incorrect spelling of names. So the author spells the person’s name one way at the beginning, and another way in the middle. Go back and review names to make sure they are correct and consistent across the whole document. Getting names right respects people.
55. Paraphrase quotations unless they are absolutely brilliant
If you’ve got a quotation in your writing like “In the third quarter, the revenues jumped 36% from the last quarter,” paraphrase it. This is a boring quote, and quotes should be reserved for fascinating language.
56. Make sure people speak
Whatever prose writing you’re doing, whether a novel or a screenplay or an academic paper, make sure people speak in it at some point. Use fascinating quotations or come up with great dialogue – whatever it takes to bring real humans to life. Readers want to hear not only the voice of the writer but also the voice of other people.
57. Turn general language into specific language
Readers love specifics. Specifics in writing are found in the interesting details you include. If you find yourself writing generalities all the time (“He was a nice man” or “The weather was very good that summer”) stop and rethink your language. Provide specific details (What makes the man nice? What was the weather like that summer?).
58. Use nouns more often than pronouns
To avoid repetition, writers turn to pronouns (small words that replace nouns: it, he, she, they). But sometimes these pronouns become overused and confusing. For example, if you have two men described in a paragraph, and then you mention the pronoun “he” (as in, “he left the room”), the reader becomes confused. This is called faulty pronoun reference. Using nouns as much as possible (without overdoing it) eliminates such confusion.
59. Vary the lengths of your sentences
Have you ever listened to a monotonous speaker? The person drones on and on. Well, that’s the feeling readers have when every one of your sentences is the same length. Good writers mix up the lengths of their sentences to keep monotony away.
60. Use long sentences for dreams and emotional moments
Earlier in this list, I mentioned to keep your sentences relatively short (15 words or fewer). Some exceptions to the rule include dreams and emotional moments. Dreams and emotional moments read well in long sentences, as that’s exactly how they feel: long, flowing, and indeterminate.
61. Be consistent with contractions
Check with your style guide on whether to use contractions. In academic writing, words like “it’s” or “can’t” are spelled out fully as “it is” or “cannot.” Some people feel the contracted style is too informal for some kinds of writing.
62. Use extremely short sentences for emphatic points
Extremely short sentences work great to hammer home a single point. Look through your writing for opportunities to add in a sentence of up to 6 words that concludes a section of writing. Readers will not forget that emphasis point.
63. Don’t ruin good verbs with the wrong suffix
Earlier I argued for the importance of strong verbs, verbs that create images in readers’ minds. But sometimes a strong verb can be ruined with an –ing ending. Usually these –ing words combine with a dead verb, like was. Instead of “They ran to the school,” which includes a great verb, you ruin the verb with “They were running to the school.” Knock off the –ing and “were” and you have a great sentence with the focus on the action.
64. Be careful with jargon
Words that are specific to certain fields or human endeavours are called jargon. Jargon is okay if you’re speaking to an audience that would understand it. But sometimes writers use jargon as a way to show off or suggest they are better than their readers. If you must use jargon with a general audience, explain every term in everyday language.
65. Repeat grammatical elements for a poetic effect
Great orators know that you don’t have to create a unique sentence every time. Actually, planned redundancy can create a poetic effect. All the great speeches in human history repeated phrases and underlying grammatical elements.
Think of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. The only reason the speech has that title is because King repeated the “I have a dream” line many times. In addition, he also repeated underlying grammatical elements without repeating the exact words. This subtle repetition is pleasing to readers.
66. Avoid clichés
Writing in an original way is hard work. It’s much easier to just write down some old, well-worn phrases: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” “It’s raining cats and dogs,” and “He’s the ace in the hole.” Increase your awareness of clichés by reading cliché databases on the web. If you use clichés, you’re marking yourself as an unoriginal writer. Good editors will see you a mile away (yes, that’s a cliché).
67. Show rather than tell
A classic writing mantra, “show don’t tell” reminds writers to give readers all the details of sight, sound, touch, smell, and feel. This is hard work, however. Beginning authors would rather write “My dog smelled so bad” than “My dog smelled like an old sweaty gym sock.” Telling is fine, sometimes (that’s how you make explicit arguments), but keep the ratio high on the showing side.
68. Use only “said” for quotation attributions
To avoid repetition in quotations of characters in fiction, many writers end the quotes with anything but the old reliable verb “said.” They change those many saids to “he chortled” or “she yelled” or “he advised.” These attributions are often, however, duplicates of meaning.
For example, if the quote has a person yelling, and it ends with an exclamation point, then the person is already yelling. All we need from the attribution is “said” and the name of the person who said it. Focus instead on the meaning you’re giving the reader inside the quotation marks.
69. Remove complicated verb tenses
All you need in writing is the simple past and simple present of verb tenses: “They ran,” “They run,” “The dog jumped,” “The dog jumps,” and so on. But sometimes we write these complicated verb tenses: “They may have been running to the concert,” “The dog will have been jumping by the time I arrive.” These tenses may capture the exact meaning of time surrounding the action, but they are hard to process.
70. Choose strong nouns over weak nouns
In the same way some verbs are stronger in imagery than others, some nouns are stronger than others. When you imagine the word “dog” you see in your mind’s eye a generalized dog. But when you imagine the word “pit bull” you see in your mind’s eye a very specific dog.
Go through your writing and look for generalized or weak nouns and replace them with specific or strong nouns. Weak nouns also tend to have –tion suffixes, such as nominalization, standardization, and collection.
71. Remove big words only the Queen of England says
I imagine the Queen of England says things like “Hereafter we will do things differently” or “There is a case, though, wherein you can use the aforementioned property.” In both sentences, the big, difficult words stand out: hereafter, wherein, aforementioned. You wouldn’t use such big words in conversation with your friends and family, so you should remove them from your writing during the editing stage.
72. Write mostly in the active voice
If there’s one grammar point you should learn, it’s the idea of active voice. Active voice describes a straightforward way of ordering your words. Simply put, you write the “doer” of an action first, the action second, and (optionally) the receiver of the action. For example: “John threw the ball.” This is a classic active voice sentence.
Passive voice, on the other hand, is more complicated, and this makes it more difficult to read. A passive voice word order would go like this: “The ball was thrown by John.” It requires more words, and it places the “doer” of the action last, an unnecessary delay. You can also write “The ball was thrown” to avoid saying who did it. This grammatical curiosity allows writers to avoid responsibility for actions.
73. Take time to look only at your punctuation
Punctuation deserves special attention when proofreading, but it’s virtually ignored these days. Take a grammar book and do a quick review of basic punctuation rules before you proofread (hint: look at semi-colons, which are commonly misused). Also, word processors will often format pasted text incorrectly, making your apostrophes flat instead of curved. Fixing those little problems develops your eye for detail and will make the page designer happy.
74. Turn sentence fragments into full sentences
Newscasters often speak in fragments: “Car crash today in Manhattan” or “Five key tips for healthy living.” This headline style saves time and space, but it’s not grammatical. This isn’t to say you can’t ever use fragments, but many beginning writers don’t even realize they are using them.
It’s important to recognize that all sentences need verbs (plus other things). If you weren’t deliberately doing it, go back to your writing and change those fragments to full sentences.
75. Add cohesion words between sentences
In some writing, sentences are islands all by themselves. That means there are no “bridges” linking those islands. You can increase the readability of your writing by adding in linking words between the sentences. One common cohesion phrase is “As a result…” which links what came before to the effect in the next sentence. Simply repeating some words in multiple sentences can also link those sentences in the reader’s mind.
76. Remove mixed metaphors
Metaphors can be great devices for explaining abstract ideas. They can also go horribly wrong if mixed together with other metaphors. For example, consider this sentence: The chef stood at the doorway to success but the food critic crushed his mountain of dreams. This feels contrived. Only use metaphors singularly and only if they will resonate with your audience.
77. Vary word choice if you’re getting stuck in a rut
All writers get stuck in a word choice rut once in awhile. It may seem like you’re using the same 10 words over and over again. If you find yourself in this situation, you can do a couple of things. First, grab a thesaurus and start learning about similar words to your common set. Then use them as often as you can.
Also, it may help to try brain games. Lumosity.com has a particularly good brain game called Word Bubbles. The game asks the player, under the pressure of a 60-second countdown clock, to form as many words as possible from just one or two letters. This forces you to explore the recesses of your mind to find those interesting words that lurk there, just waiting to be released.
78. Consider your position in the debate over “they”
A great debate for editors today is over the use of “they” when referring to singular nouns. In conversation, many people will refer to a man or woman as they, which makes no grammatical sense – “they” is plural. Similarly an organization is often called “they.” But many editors leave it in, saying that people have become accustomed to using they as singular or plural.
Similarly, many transgender people have asked not to be referred as “he” or “she” but “they” (and other new pronouns). Where do you stand on this debate – with the traditionalists or the newbies?
79. Re-order sentences
If a paragraph seems unfocused, a simple solution could be just re-ordering the sentences. That puts ideas into a better flow. You may find that the topic sentence of the paragraph is actually hidden in the middle or at the end.
80. Look out for double words
Double words crop up occasionally in rough drafts: the the, on on, to to. It seems to be a problem of fast fingers and a racing brain. If you’re proofreading a book, for example, Microsoft Word will look out for this problem of double words, if you run the grammar checker. If not, you can search for possible combinations with the “find” feature in your word processor.
Take some time away from the words and sentences to consider the appearance of your text.
81. Look for formatting inconsistencies
Are all your paragraphs flush left or are some indented? Do you put the body text flush to the heading, or do you insert a line space between the two? In focusing so much on the words, we sometimes forget to make the formatting consistent throughout the whole document.
82. Check for missing quote marks
In writing out quotations, it’s important to get the text exactly right. But sometimes writers forget to finish the quote with the second quote mark. Also check to see if the period is inside or outside the last quote mark. In school we’re often taught to place the period outside the last quote mark, but most style guides recommend placing it inside the last quote mark – even if it wasn’t in the original quotation.
83. Look carefully at apostrophes
For some reason, when you copy text from some word processors into others, the formatting of apostrophes is lost. They come out flat, without the usual curve. Keep an eye on those apostrophes, as perfectionists can find the difference disconcerting in the final published document (and certainly a page designer will notice and have to manually change them).
84. Insert headings for easier reading
The classic undergraduate English literature paper is 6 to 8 pages of double-spaced text, one paragraph flowing into the next. But in most professional writing, writers can enhance understanding by introducing headings and subheadings. And these headings and subheadings can help you too. They provide a visual representation of the outline of the document. You always know where you are.
85. Put numbers into graphs, charts, and tables
If you’ve got sentences and sentences of numbers, consider turning them into visuals. Graphs, charts, and tables are easier for the reader to process than full sentences of numbers, particularly if you’re trying to explain a trend.
86. Be consistent with capitalization
Writers may forget their own capitalization rules as they move through a document. I’ve seen students, for example, capitalize the word “University” and then fail to capitalize it later. Decide early on in your writing – perhaps with the help of a style guide – just what needs capitalization and what doesn’t. It’s not a simple answer. If you don’t have a style guide on hand, just be consistent with capitalization, particularly in headings and subheadings.
87. Remove two spaces after the period
Back in the days of typewriters, and then dot-matrix printers, writers were recommended to add two spaces after the period at the end of the sentence. But with the advent of computer desktop publishing programs, this two-space rule became annoying – it messed up the automatic character spacing of the software. Use just one space after a period. The APA style guide does recommend two spaces, but this is unusual in the publishing business.
88. Be consistent with your hyphen style
This is a small point that annoys page designers: inconsistent hyphen or dash style. Hyphens are usually the very small dashes conjoining words, such as “long-time.” En dashes are a bit longer: –. The biggest is the Em dash: —. Check your style guide to determine which one to use when.
Once everything is in place, it’s time to attend to some final concerns. Writers often forget to do these tasks in the haste to finish.
89. Run Spell check at the end
Spell check is a feature in every word processor, but many people don’t bother to use it. Yes, spell check sometimes says a word is misspelled when it isn’t. But at the very least, you should run a final spell check and assess the words flagged as incorrect. This can be time-consuming on a long document – and that’s probably why many people don’t bother with it – but it can find those final few errors you missed.
90. Proof the tables
When you’re so focused on the body paragraphs, you can forget about the tables. Take a close look at table headings, descriptions, and sources. Errors often lurk in that fine print below the table.
91. Fact-check your work
Sometimes we focus so much on editing and proofreading that we overlook fact-checking. Reputable magazines have a person dedicated just to checking facts in writers’ articles. Go back to your document and locate dates, names, statistics, and so on, and compare them to the original source. It’s also important to make sure you didn’t take the fact out of context. This work will save your reputation.
92. Re-check your quotations with the original source
In the process of typing in other people’s words, it’s easy to make a mistake. Go back to the original source and check your copy word by word. You don’t want to misrepresent what they said.
93. Ensure the writing is inclusive
At one point in human history (well, before the 1950s), writers could get away with referring to all of humanity with the pronoun “he.” Over time, people started to realize that this excluded women and “they” became popular to refer to a mixed-gender group. Other inclusive writing involves using terms that respect people with disabilities.
94. Check to see if you really used all the sources
If you’re writing an academic document, you may decide to remove a theorist or two as you go along. But then you forget to remove the citation from your references page. It’s always a good idea at the end of the editing and proofreading process to scan through the document and make sure you really did use all the sources listed in your references. Remove the citations you no longer use.
95. Ensure you’ve avoided copying
If you’re referring to other people’s work, particularly other people’s blog posts, news articles, and academic papers, make sure you don’t copy even a phrase. Taking even a phrase of 4 or 5 words from another writer can lead to charges of plagiarism. Many students fall into this trap because they can’t think of another way of writing an idea. Always put other people’s ideas into your own words. It’s harder, but it keeps your reputation safe.
96. Re-check your references
At the back of academic documents lurk the references. Perhaps the location is what causes everyone to forget to proofread them. Make sure the names and titles and dates are correct. Also look out for formatting and capitalization consistency (check your style guide).
97. Review the numbering of sections
In documents with section numbers, it’s easy to lose track of the current number. This causes you to number the next section header with the same number as the last. When you’re done drafting, count those heading numbers.
98. Proofread headings
While you’re so busy proofreading the body text of your document, it can be easy to forget the headings. Take one pass through the document, looking only for the accuracy of headings and subheadings. Since headings naturally stand out to the reader, errors in them stand out even more.
99. Re-check any mathematics
For many writers, math is not their greatest skill. Indeed, many writers choose to write because they don’t want to be involved in numbers. If you do have any math in your documents, however, double-check it. Glaring mathematical errors can undermine your arguments and your credibility.
100. Confirm that the revised document headings match the Table of Contents
After a long proofread, you may forget to go back to the front and check the Table of Contents. You may have changed the wording of subheadings or event chapters. Do a quick proof of the TOC and make sure the headings and chapter titles match.
Dr. Duncan Koerber has taught writing and communications courses for the past 10 years at 6 Canadian universities to thousands of students. Oxford University Press recently published his writing textbook, Clear, Precise, Direct: Strategies for Writing (2015). Take his foundational writing course with unique exercises and assignments on Udemy.com: 7 Lessons for Becoming a Standout Writer at Work or School.