Top 3 DIY Proofreading Tips


No-one has time for proofreading, right?

Effective writing often takes much longer than we expect and in our time-poor lives, it’s usually a relief to dot the final full stop, tick the box on your to-do list and move on.

Not only are we short of time, but proofreading is tricky. For at least two reasons.

TooClose1You’re too close. Writers are often emotionally attached to their work, and this makes it difficult to look at their writing objectivity. We all tend to read what we meant to write rather than what we actually wrote. A ‘cooling off’ period between writing and proofreading can help you step back and review your work with some detachment.


3ProofTipsTitleYou’re too brainy. Remember the image at the top of this post? Most people make sense of it fairly effortlessly by relying on subconscious assumptions about familiar letter combinations. So while ‘yuo’ doesn’t exist in English, ‘you’ does, so that’s what we ‘see’. This is an amazing feat of the human brain but there’s a downside. It also explains why it’s so easy to miss errors when our subconscious is correcting them on the fly.

Proofreading requires time and effort and skill, and it’s not something you can effectively do last thing at night, or on the way to a meeting. Here are examples of the 3 most common errors I come across as a proofreader. Check for them in your next piece of writing. Once you know what you’re looking for, you’re more likely to find it.

Proofreading Tip # 1: Grammar

Tip1:: Subject-verb agreement

The sentences, ‘The dog loves playing.’ and ‘The dogs love playing.’ clearly illustrate this English grammar rule. English speakers instinctively know that if the subject of a sentence is singular (‘the dog’), then the singular form of the verb is required (‘loves’). And that if the subject of a sentence is plural (‘the dogs’), the plural form of the verb is required (‘love’). It looks so obvious in these examples, and it may surprise you how often I correct this error in longer sentences such as the following.

This example comes from an academic paper on the impact of climate change on the Galapagos sea lion.

incorrect ‘The Galapagos sea lion Zalophus wollebaeki are an iconic species.’

correct ‘The Galapagos sea lion Zalophus wollebaeki is an iconic species.’

This example comes from a testimonial:

incorrect ‘Her positive energy and warm dedication to a first class outcome was greatly appreciated.’

correct ‘Her positive energy and warm dedication to a first class outcome were greatly appreciated.’

Proofreading Tip # 2: Punctuation

Tip2:: Apostrophes

Two earlier posts (here and here) cover basic apostrophe rules, including the use of an apostrophe to show ownership or association.

This example comes from the academic paper mentioned above.

incorrect ‘Natural or anthropogenic catastrophic events are a major factor in a populations risk of extinction and should be included in any Population Viability Analysis (PVA).’

correct ‘Natural or anthropogenic catastrophic events are a major factor in a population’s risk of extinction and should be included in any Population Viability Analysis (PVA).’

This example is from an ebook on healthy living.

incorrect ‘Nothing ages a body faster than toxins. Unfortunately, in todays society there is no escaping them no matter how clean a life you live.’

correct ‘Nothing ages a body faster than toxins. Unfortunately, in today’s society there is no escaping them no matter how clean a life you live.’

 Proofreading Tip # 3: Spelling

Tip3:: Australian English – American English

spellingMany words are spelled differently in Australian English and American English.

While, for example, ‘optimise’ (Australian English) and ‘optimize’ (American English) are both correct, it’s wise to choose which to use according to your expected readership. Once you’ve made your choice, be consistent – it looks odd to find both Australian and American English spelling in the same piece of writing.

Also, don’t forget to check the settings in your online spell checker as American English is the default for many. A quality dictionary should provide alternative spellings and label them clearly.

The table shows words I’ve corrected recently. There are many more.

How do you feel about proofreading? Does it frustrate you when you can’t see your own mistakes? Is proofreading something that you make time for, or is it one of the things that gets sacrificed due to time pressures? Which errors do you typically make, and what type of cheat sheet would help? I’d love to hear from you.


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  1. Thanks Alison! Your article really spells proofreading out neatly. It’s like a series of waves I can now apply to anything I’m working on. Keep up the beautifully presented information.

  2. The typo fairy is a full time resident at my place! The one that surprised me the most was ‘travelled’, as an Aussie the left hand side of your chart works for me, but I have always used ‘ll’ in that word. oops. 🙂

    • Hi Nikki, it’s good to hear from you. Yes, ‘travelled’ is an interesting one. The ‘rules’ for doubling a final consonant are complicated, involving whether or not the preceding vowel is stressed or unstressed and spelled with one letter or two. And then ‘travel’ is in a small category with its own rules! I’m not sure if this extra info helps or not! Both ‘traveled’ and ‘travelled’ are correct, so I wouldn’t worry too much unless it’s important that your writing consistently uses US and Australian English spelling. You could also ‘tell’ your spell-checker which spellings you want to use without it showing up an error. 🙂

  3. Keep the tips coming.

  4. I’m loving this article Alison (and your others too). I find it very difficult to release content without typos, mainly because I’m so close to it. I blame the typo fairy! I also find that the more time we spend on social media, it is very easy to make an error because we are typing phonetically, so here and hear, there and their, or wear and where are easily swapped, even though it’s clearly incorrect.

    • Yes, Krishna, that fairy sure gets around! Don’t tell anyone, but I had to go back and edit two typos of my own in this post. I didn’t see them until a day or so after publishing! And that’s a good point too about the impact of the different technologies we use.

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