Proofreading your own writing can be challenging. But it’s important to give anything you write—whether it be for your boss, your colleagues, or your direct reports—a thorough check and to make it as clean and clear as possible. It’s much better for you to find your own errors before your readers do.
Here are four tips I’ve picked up over almost 40 years of writing and editing.
Let technology help you. Running the spelling-checker tool is essential, and paying attention to the squiggles under words in your word-processing software will clue you in to some errors. Spell checking and grammar checking won’t catch everything that could be wrong (and may flag usage that is correct), but doing those checks will help.
Use the Find feature in Microsoft Word or whatever word-processing program you’re using to search for words that you tend to mistype or misuse. For example, if you mix up affect and effect, check each instance of either word if it appears in your writing. If you have a tendency to mistype the homophones there, they’re, or their, use Find to search for those words.
Use the magnifying feature on your computer screen and read your words at 200% or even 300%. Or turn to one of the oldest and best technologies, and print your work to read it, rather than merely reading it on a computer screen. I often use a short ruler that has a magnifier in the middle and read the document line by line.
Here is what it looks like:
Read your work aloud. This helps you focus on what you wrote, and problems such as dropped words will stand out. This is harder to do in an office cubicle, but I read aloud silently sometimes, mouthing the words and hearing them in my head. This is particularly helpful on complex sentences and may even help you see spots where you need to rewrite extensively.
Read from the end. Start with the last sentence in your work and read each sentence from the end to the beginning in isolation from the others. This will force you to look at the structure of each sentence and help you spot subject-verb agreement failures or perhaps a missed homophone or a dropped word.
Set the work aside. After you have gone through your piece and perhaps made changes, walk or turn away from it for just a few minutes (or longer if you have time). Then go back and read it through once or even twice more. Take a hard look at any changes you made to be sure that you didn’t introduce any typos. The key at this point is to be alert, engaged, and objective. Block out distractions.
For any professional communication that will be shared with more than a few people, you should have a colleague or a supervisor read and edit your work, and professionally trained editors can be invaluable, if you have access to one.
Remember that colleagues, supervisors, and clients who might overlook occasional nonstandard usage in speech are less forgiving about such problems in writing. Polish your work before you pass it along, and you’ll make a better impression. You want your message to be clear, not your mistakes.
Pamela Nelson is a copy editor on the Magazines & Newsletters team at the AICPA.
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