Scientific research shows how we miss errors in our work - namely, because there is a contest going on in our minds between what we see and what we anticipate, being on a journey towards the overall meaning.
Having published about twenty books this year, I have had the opportunity to proofread about a million words. These are some of the things I have learned:
1. Turn off your computer spell checker.
Reliance on a machine to spot mistakes is a mistake in itself. Yes, basic computer spellchecking these days is more advanced than it was ten years ago, but it’s still not as good as a human being and probably never will be. By all means, run your spell check as a time-saving activity to catch common errors, but then carefully proofread your document yourself to find the more subtle departures and discrepancies.
The only way to pick up errors in work written by human beings is using another human being.
2. Note error patterns.
For me, the most common things I miss are to do with the tail-end of dialogue - the commas and capital letters and all the other tiny rules about punctuating that kind of thing. It’s not that I don’t know all of this - I can spot a tiny, isolated error a mile off in another’s work. But familiarity breeds blindness and after two or more readings these things seem to drop off the radar and don’t get picked up.
You may have similar issues or your common mistakes may be quite different. Knowing what they are you can then be more focussed on spotting exactly those things when proofreading a text for the umpteenth time.
3. Slow down.
This is hard if you have a deadline to meet. It’s partly why reading aloud or reading something backwards are successful techniques.
Dividing a work up into sections, as mentioned earlier, helps, especially if you then timetable each section to be done over a set period of time, allowing for breaks. This serves to break the work down into chunks which are disconnected from the overall meaning of the piece, and so helps you to see mechanical slips.
Holding a ruler under each line as you read also can help to slow you down, if you’re working with a hard copy.
4. Check proper nouns -names and so forth.
Names of characters in stories are peculiar things. A writer can invent someone, give that created person a name and then change that name later on in a story without noticing. The fact that a character is invented means that the change isn’t picked up as easily as it would be if the person being written about were real. ‘Bronmore’ can become ‘Bronson’ without detection; ‘Sandra’ can become ‘Sophie’ and so on. The first letter is the same, and the writer (and proofreader) just sees the first letter or two, dismisses it as ‘the name of that character who was introduced in Chapter Two’ and moves on. It’s worth doing a specific name-checking sweep through a story to pick out these things.
5. Increase the font size temporarily on screen.
This is similar to ‘making the piece look different’ as given earlier, but it's easy to do and can really help. Just boost the size of the font until each sentence fills your screen. This is especially useful for picking up missing or incorrect punctuation and spelling.
More will follow on this subject soon.