Ten Tips for Proof-reading Your Writing

I have had a number of conversations with Karl “The Kidologist” Bastian of Kidology in recent years about writing and editing. He reminded me via twitter that we had discussed having me create a list of ten tips for proof-reading a document. Consider this a preliminary contribution to what may become an ongoing conversation about writing and editing.

Before I offer my list of specific tips concerning the craft, let me suggest a few fundamental resources and ideas. First, keep a dictionary, thesaurus, and style manual handy. For the first two, I most commonly use dictionary.com and thesaurus.com. I also own and frequently consult The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn, and On Writing Well by William Zinsser. All of these have served me well and I commend them to you highly. In fact, I suggest Zinsser’s book as required reading before you launch out into developing a writing platform.

Second, bloggers, self-published authors and writers with similar fast-track publishing platforms are well-advised to slow down their pace to allow for unbiased critique of their work. In other words, serious bloggers should not quickly write a piece and then hit publish before giving careful attention to the editorial process. To avoid this temptation, write the piece in a document editor such as Word or something similar. Only enter it into the blogging platform when the final edited version is completed and ready to publish. Likewise, self-published authors should also avoid sending a book to print without feedback from a quality editor. Assume the first draft is just that: a first draft. I recognize that this advice is counterintuitive to our instant satisfaction culture. However, when you look at that first draft again in the morning you will notice needed edits which will cause you to thank me for pulling on your reins just a bit (pun intended; yes, you may laugh).

 With that, I now offer you my list of ten tips for proof-reading your writing:

  1. Unless it is absolutely necessary to portray a particular voice or culture, lose the colloquial language. Writers tend to write the way that they speak. Although there can be some benefit to this tendency by virtue of creating your unique writing voice, the downside is that it allows colloquial language to bleed into the text, frequently causing ideas to be obscured by vague terminology and wordy, awkward phrasing. Particularly in serious non-fiction writing, it is constructive to edit colloquialisms out of the text. Be merciless. You may need an independent editor to help you with this.
  2. Watch for repetition. As a corollary, writers (even experienced ones working on their first drafts) tend to use certain words or phrases repeatedly. When your piece is completed, set it aside for a couple of days. Then return to it, specifically looking for repetitious phrasing or words. In time, you will improve your ability to avoid it.
  3. Do not rely on spell-check, or auto-spell check to correct your typos and check your grammar. It can have benefits, but it also breeds editorial laziness. Plus, it may change specialized terminology which is not in its database to something which you do not mean. Instead, rely on your dictionary and thesaurus.
  4. Clear writing is simple and elegant. Why say in twenty words what you can convey in five? This is not to say complex sentences are bad. However, only use them to the degree that they contribute to the strength of your ideas. In short, be as straightforward as possible and edit out ambiguity.
  5. Punctuation is intended to bring clarity to sentences. Most people over-punctuate, seemingly fearful that their childhood English teachers lurk nearby waiting to rap their fingers with wooden rulers if they inadequately adorn their sentences with those glorious bits of flair known as punctuation marks. Minimalist punctuation is good, especially as it pertains to commas. See your style guide for help with commas, semi-colons, and other sundry sentence interruptions.
  6. Get to the point quickly or risk losing your audience. When proof-reading the first draft of an article or blog post, determine how long it takes to get to the central thesis. If it takes longer than a few sentences, then remove the excess from the beginning as it is likely filled with either irrelevant material or wordiness and awkward fumbling for the main idea of the piece.
  7. Write to the level of your intended audience, but do not assume they are helpless to understand well-defined terminology and complex ideas which are expressed in clear and cogent ways. It is your responsibility to write clearly, offering specialized definitions and access to further reading where necessary, so that they may follow your thesis to its conclusion.
  8. When each draft of a particular piece is complete, read it out loud. You may discover typos, awkward phrasing, and unclear thesis development through this process. When writing for hire, count on multiple drafts before submitting for publication. Even then, additional drafts may be required by the editors. Develop a thick skin for critical feedback and learn from it.
  9. Avoid passive sentences unless they are absolutely necessary.
  10. Learn rules of grammar. The Copyeditor’s Handbook will serve you well as you deal with grammar issues. Just because a turn of phrase sounds correct to your ear does not mean it is correct in written form. I refer you back to my comments on colloquialisms in point 1.

This is not an exhaustive list; but it offers a glimpse into constructive habits for proof-reading your own work. Read Zinsser for a thorough treatment of the writing craft. His economy of words and incisive wit will influence your writing habits. For now, do not be so enamored with a turn of phrase or development of an idea that you are not willing to edit it out if you recognize it simply must go in order to produce the best possible final product. The point of proof-reading in the editorial process is to prepare the document for publication so that it receives the widest audience possible. If you do everything you possibly can to craft a quality product, eventually all those rejection letters will be forgotten on account of a single letter of acceptance. So, off you go. Write often. Edit mercilessly. After all, that is when the real writing begins.

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4 thoughts on “Ten Tips for Proof-reading Your Writing

  1. Thanks, Glen. I think #6 is a common one that took me a while to learn. I have found that I often am winding up in my introduction and almost finding my way into a topic, and almost always now, in my editing, my introduction gets slashed as I realize a lot of what I wrote was mostly of interest to me and delayed getting to the point.

    I think another editing blunder that annoys me and is common, especially in blogging, that makes a piece sound like a high school paper, is when a writer discusses their post within the post. For example, if I were to say that in this comment, I would like to comment that it bothers me when people comment on their comment in the comment. Don’t say, “My paper is about…” or “This article is to address…” Just address it already! It takes away from the authoritiveness of the article. Instead of saying, “I would like to say,” just say it.

    Finally, run on sentences that keep on saying things without getting to the point and use lots of vague words without getting specific and use conjunctions to link all these loose thoughts together without actually saying much of substance so you know they have a thought but they haven’t really thought it through but they want to keep typing to kinda think it through while writing hoping that by the time they are done typing they will have figured out what they were trying to say and maybe you will have too by the time they finally put a period at the end of it all. Like that, maybe. ;)

    Great article!

  2. Thanks Karl for the insight and encouragement. As I engage the writing and editing conversation with new and old friends on twitter, I am discovering a whole new world of varying viewpoints. Michael Hyatt is a good example with his recent post which pushes back against blog grammar police. He offers a helpful counterpoint to my ideas. Yes, we should do the very best we can to put forth a polished product. However, we also should not become paralyzed into non-productivity for fear of that single illusive typo that inevitably will sneak in to our content undetected. In other words, relax. Write often. Seek to write well.

  3. This article is (happily) a very timely one for me. Thanks Karl, for asking for it and thanks Glen for writing and sharing it. It won’t be long before I begin editing before asking for editing before submitting it for editing….for more editing. :) I know that that “thick skin” is very likely going to come in handy.
    Peace in His name,
    David

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