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Proofreading for the Do-It-Yourselfer: 10 Quick and Dirty Tips


Contrary to what some might believe, writing and editing are different skills, and when creating a masterpiece of the written word, you need to apply both. The editing process is an essential step in creating a polished, reputable text. In fact, when you know your book or thesis will be undergoing the editing process later, you can free your mind during the writing of your first draft to focus on content and the organization of your thoughts. American writer C. J. Cherryh said, It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.

When it's time to edit, hiring a professional editor is ideal (and you can find some great editors through ServiceScape!), or you could enlist the help of a helpful friend to look over your text. However, if you don't have the time or budget to hire someone and asking a colleague to look it over isn't an option, you can polish your writing yourself. Use these 10 tips to help you get the best results from self-editing.

1. Strengthen your opening paragraphs

Most readers I know give a text a few pages (or even just a few lines) to prove that it's worth their time reading further. Look over those first lines to make sure you present the strongest voice you have and make a positive impression. Are you clear on what your paper is about? What will your book bring to your reader? Read your first few paragraphs or pages and ask yourself whether it invites your audience to read more. If not, give those lines a boost.

2. Simplify your syntax

Some writers believe that the more complex their word choice, the more impressed their audience will be. But if your readers can't understand you and need to reference a dictionary again and again just to get through your text, impressed is the last thing they'll be. Use your thesaurus with caution, and when editing your work, look out for cases in which you use an obscure word when simpler, clearer language is best.

3. Fix your passive voice

Passive voice describes a subject as being acted upon by another actor, so keep your eyes open for sentences that could be reworded to bring a livelier tone to your text. For example, consider these two sentences: "My neighbor's couch was ripped by his crazy dogs," and "The energetic dogs tore through the fabric of the couch and pulled the stuffing out." The use of active voice is much more engaging and evokes more imagination. Although passive voice cannot be avoided in some cases, you can often rework many sentences in your writing to engage your readers more effectively.

4. Cut the fluff

When expressing ideas, especially those we are invested in and passionate about, we can all get a little wordy. Look for sentences in which you can potentially convey your point in fewer words. Your writing will sound immensely better with a smaller word count, and you'll have a better chance of keeping your readers' interest. Here are some examples of phrases you could substitute:

  • "In order to" could become "to."
  • "I think" can sound unassertive. State your ideas and thoughts outright!
  • "As a matter of fact" could be removed and no one would miss it.
  • "Absolutely," "obviously," or "really" are redundant in most cases. Take them out and see if the sentence still works.
  • "When it comes to…." Put your subject into the main phrase directly instead of using this phrase to establish it first. For example, "When it comes to ice cream, strawberry is my favorite." Try this: "Strawberry is my favorite ice cream flavor."

5. Consider your target audience

If you have been writing a book or article from your own perspective, it can be helpful to approach the editing task with your audience in mind. What would they think about this idea? Is this topic expressed clearly based on what they know? Keep in mind especially that your readers might not be experts on your subject, so keep your eye open for jargon or expressions that could be unfamiliar to a wider readership. PlainLanguage.gov provides the following examples:

Don't saySay
riverine avifaunariver birds
involuntarily undomiciledhomeless
The patient is being given positive-pressure ventilatory support.The patient is on a respirator.
Most refractory coatings to date exhibit a lack of reliability when subject to the impingement of entrained particulate matter in the propellant stream under extended firing durations.The exhaust gas eventually damages the coating of most existing ceramics.

6. Print it out

If you did most of your writing on a computer, try reading your text on paper so you can approach it from a new perspective. A professor at the University of North Dakota performed a study revealing that students retained more information that they read on paper compared to a computer screen. This tells us that the brain absorbs text more effectively when reading it on paper. Of course, you won't learn anything new from what you wrote yourself, but this phenomenon might help you notice flaws in logic, grammar, or sentence flow that you didn't notice as easily when working on screen.

7. Read your writing aloud

You could also access a different part of your brain by reading your text out loud to yourself. First of all, reading out loud takes longer than reading silently, and this can give you more time to hear phrases you'd like to change. Second, the act of both speaking and hearing a text helps your brain grasp the information more readily. A study from the University of Waterloo in Ontario revealed that participants remembered information more effectively if they read it aloud as opposed to only reading silently. This research shows that your brain is more engaged when you read your text out loud, so give it a try.

8. Give it some space

After writing a text and going over your work repeatedly, you can become blind to any errors or awkward phrases in there. During the process of editing, take a break and go for a walk, sleep on it, or get your chores done to give your mind a break from the text. When you return to the editing task, you'll have fresh eyes and can more readily notice parts of your writing you'd like to change. Some writers even claim that they put away a piece of writing for months at a time and then come back to read it again. In a pinch, however, even 15 minutes can be enough time to give your mind a breather and refresh your perspective.

9. Check your formatting

After examining the words and ideas, step back to look at how the paragraphs and headings are laid out on the pages. Are you looking to be published with an entity that has its own style guide? Get familiar with the specifications of that style guide to be sure that your work is aligned with their standards. Purdue Online Writing Lab offers guides on many commonly used style guides, offering helpful examples and instructions on how to follow them.

10. Do a final proofread

After you've made your more major changes to your phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, take a final look for grammar and punctuation errors that have popped up. Sometimes when you're cutting and pasting text, extra words can get left behind and overlooked. Perform a final read just to make sure your subjects and verbs agree and that everything sounds logical.

Even though it can be overwhelming to be your own editor, you can absolutely do it yourself. Get comfortable with re-reading your works with a different eye each time according to these tips. Although editing can feel vastly different from writing, your writing talents qualify you to identify whether the sentences in your text just don't sound right. Trust your gut, take it one sentence at a time, and apply these ideas to make your writing the best it can be.

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