3 top tips for proofreading your writing on-screen

A guest post by Amanda Laughtland

Most of the writers I know do a great deal (if not all) of their composing and editing on computer screens. With the portability of tablets and smartphones, it’s easier than ever for writers to set to work whenever they find a few moments to bring up their documents at the bus stop, on the bus, or anywhere else.

Ideally, I like to compose on paper first, and I still buy stacks of spiral notebooks during back-to-school sales in the fall, but for my work-related writing tasks, I do almost all of my writing and editing while looking at the 13-inch screen of my notebook computer, not my spiral notebook.

I’ve been teaching college-level writing online for several years, and in my experience, the strongest writers have the keenest eye for proofreading their own work. Below are three of my favorite strategies writers can use to find and fix errors in their own writing. Give one or all of these a try the next time you’re proofreading the work you’ve been composing and editing online.

Remember that proofreading happens after you’ve already completed editing the content of your piece. Start proofreading when you know that your writing expresses your ideas, includes enough evidence and examples, and has a clear sense of organization and structure.

1. Slow down. It’s especially easy to speed through a piece of writing when you’re reading on a screen. We read more quickly online, with more of a tendency to skim (think about how quickly you scan through content when clicking through websites).

A lot of mistakes slip by because writers don’t slow down enough to notice small, sentence-level details. Look at every sentence, every word, and every punctuation mark.

2. Try reading from bottom to top. After you’ve already proofread your work in the conventional way, from beginning to end, give your document a read-through where you start at the end and read back to the beginning, focusing on just one sentence at a time.

This technique also counteracts the quick scrolling and quick reading that tends to happen when you’re reading on a screen. Reading from end to beginning can help give you the sentence-level focus you need to find and fix errors.

3. Most importantly, print out your work. We get used to reading on screens, but studies show that we don’t read as closely when reading from a screen as from a printed page. Also, it’s helpful to look at your work from a new perspective rather than just scrolling through the same document over and over.

I learned a tip from novelist and nonfiction writer Skye Moody that it also helps to print out your work in a different font than you’ve been using as you edit on your document on your computer. Seeing the words in a different font can give you that little bit of distance you need to see your writing in a new way, and errors might jump out more readily.

After trying these strategies, you may also want to ask someone else to have a look at your work; we all have troublesome errors we don’t notice ourselves but which someone else might notice right away. Also, try reading your work aloud, or ask someone to read your work to you: we can often “hear” errors which we can’t “see” when reading our own work.

What strategies have you found effective in proofreading your own writing?

Amanda Laughtland is a writer, teacher, editor, and small press publisher who lives in Seattle. Visit her website (http://teenytiny.org) for more about her work. Her latest project is the interview blog, With Five Questions (http://withfivequestions.blogspot.com). 

Now: get your writing right first time

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

“English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations”…more than 2,000 business and social terms from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

photo credit: Robbert van der Steeg via photopin cc

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  1. Some great tips there – thank you. I am terrible at proof-reading my own writing. I see what I intended to write rather than what I actually did write. Changing the font and printing it out first may well help!

    • Yes, I think both of those methods work well. Another useful trick is to leave what you’ve written for a few hours or overnight. Sometimes you can get too close to what you’re working on and a short break will let you pick up on goofs and typos that otherwise you might have missed.

  2. I’ve tried reading back to front. It works well in English, but when I proofread German text it doesn’t help as I need to know what the sentence means in order to check for the correct spelling according to the different cases. I am reluctant to print out X amount of pages, but I like the idea of using a different font.
    I’ll try that next time – thanks!

    • I love that idea of Mandy’s, i.e. to change to a different font. I think it works almost as well as printing the document out and saves time and trees. Shame the back-to-front method doesn’t work in German though; I wonder how many other languages would be affected similarly?

  3. I almost always read the copy aloud, as Amanda suggests. Definitely true that one “hears” different problems than one sees.

    I also find that previewing a blog post—seeing it “in the layout,” so to speak—shows me things that I didn’t see in the composing window.

    • When it comes to writing blog posts I always compose mine as Word documents and then cut and paste them into the WordPress window. That’s not so much about proofreading though as it is about security, and bearing in mind I had a major security threat a few months ago from a, er, vindictive person who previously had some control over my site, I was very grateful for all the backup. Beyond that I also back up all my important documents, blog posts, articles, etc., to a remote site. Anyway, reading your text out loud is a great idea because it always reveals awkward passages and phrases that don’t really work.

  4. That’s a good point about slowing down. It’s so tempting to skim through things online! I think different people may also check information in different ways. I’m visual more than auditory, and I can often see that there’s a mistake in a sentence before I’ve actually identified where exactly it is. Maybe it’s something to do with the whole picture of the words not looking quite right, perhaps.

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