Top 10 Proofreading Tips

Hi Folks,

Note: This post was originally scheduled for 4/27/2014. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I revised it (especially sub items in number 4) to express my current opinions, but the main list remains intact. It is timeless.

First, I’m not talking about proofreading someone else’s stuff, although you can apply these tips to that process. But mostly here I’m talking about proofreading your own stuff.

Note: I am a professional fiction writer as well as a copyeditor. For details, or just to learn what comprises a good copy edit, please visit Copyediting. It costs less than you think.

Proofreading your own writing is considerably more difficult than proofreading the work of others. Okay so here are the top ten step to proofreading your own work. In true Top 10 format, they’re in reverse order:

10. To be sure each sentence makes sense by itself, read in reverse.

Read the last sentence first, then the next, then the next and so on to the first sentence.

When you read in the proper sequence, especially if you’re reading silently, your mind will often insert letters and even whole words that are actually missing from the writing.

This is especially true of shorter words like “the” or “of” that happen to occur at the end of a line of writing.

I realize you probably won’t do this. That’s why it’s number 10 on the list. Still, it’s a good technique.

9. Check longer words to be sure you haven’t omitted any vowels (a, e, i, o, u).

8. Don’t depend on “professionals” like news anchors, who use words to make their living, to be correct.

For example, despite its widespread misuse, “likely” is an adjective, not an adverb, and it’s synonymous with “probable,” not “probably.” I cringe every time a weather guy says, “It likely will rain tonight.”

7. Use the spell checker, but not as a substitute for your own mind. It will not catch wrong words (e.g., that for than, an for and, waist for waste). You can set some spell checkers to “contextual spelling” now so they will catch “We sent our best solders into battle.”

6. If a word doesn’t look right or “feel” right to you, don’t depend on the spell checker. Look it up in the dictionary.

5. Watch closely for the omission of “ed” or “s” on the end of past tense or plural words. (Reading in reverse will help you catch these as well.)

4. Double check the spelling of words that sound similar to each other. If you aren’t sure, look them up. Here are a few I’ve seen misused often:

  • there is a place, their is possessive, and they’re means they are;
  • personal means pertaining to one person, but personnel means a group of people within a profession;
  • forward is a direction, but foreword is the opening of some books;
  • effect is a noun, but affect is a verb;
  • the writer or speaker implies, but the reader or listener infers;
  • advice is what you give someone, advise is what you’re doing when you give someone advice;
  • a whole is composed of its parts, and the parts comprise the whole; and no matter what the dictionary says
  • till is a cash drawer (or a verb meaning to turn arable land with a plow; ’til is the abbreviated version of until. And finally, because someone has to say it,
  • journal is a noun, not a verb. Seriously. When people say they’re journaling (or even chronicling, a much older bastardization of the language), it’s because they’ve yet to find that big, scary word writing. Or maybe “I’m journaling” makes them feel important. I don’t know.  A writer who says she’s “journaling” is like a mechanic who says he’s “spark plugging” or a carpenter saying he’s “cabineting.”

Note that some dictionaries have begun to blur the distinction between some of these words, even imply and infer. Don’t forget that dictionaries are written by human beings, ALL of whom are biased in one way or another. My personal bias is for learning, not merely accepting.

Living languages change, but that change should be a long, difficult, arduous process, not merely a surrender to stupidity. While I’m on the topic, “ebonics” is not a new language. It is a dialect. And like most dialects, it is a signifier either of a lack of education or laziness in pronunciation.

3. Be careful of words that contain double vowels.

  • Succeed, proceed, and exceed are the only words that end in “eed.”
  • Supersede is the only word that ends in “sede.”
  • All other words with this sound end with “cede”: precede, recede, and so on.

2. Be careful of words that contain double consonants, such as occasion, occurrence, and accommodation. My personal thorn is millennium. Seems like one N should be enough.

1. And the most important tip I can give you: Read Your Work Aloud, even if you do so quietly. (It’s better and more fun if you emote.)

When you read aloud, you’ll catch problems you wouldn’t normally catch with your eyes, especially inflection and punctuation errors. Remember, the reader can’t hear your voice when he reads your work. He has to see it.

If it sounds right to you when you read it aloud, it will sound right to the reader when he reads it silently. When I was editing, I often read my clients’ work aloud as I conducted the edit.

‘Til next time, Happy Writing!


I am a professional fiction writer. If you’d like to get writing tips several times each week, click The Daily Journal tab in the header of my website and sign up.


5 thoughts on “Top 10 Proofreading Tips”

  1. This was too good to keep it to myself, as it might help others. One writer wrote in an email (rather than posting here) to say, “Thanks for your helpful blog. Regarding today’s blog, my dictionary says ‘likely’ can be an adverb. Because I sometimes use it as an adverb, I’d appreciate an explanation of why you think it should not be an adverb.”

    The writer was correct. My Fourth Edition of the American Heritage College Dictionary says the same thing. Here’s my slightly edited response to the writer:

    You’ll notice that the usage note re “likely” meaning the same thing as “probably” is the very last entry and it’s very short. It is the lexicographer bowing to the dumbing down of America. It’s easier to just say “Okay, likely is close enough, so you don’t have to remember it’s an adjective. You can use it as an adverb” than it is to teach people the difference between an adjective and an adverb. When you say “It likely will rain tomorrow” what you mean is “It probably will rain tomorrow” or “It is likely that it will rain tomorrow” (“likely” acts on “is”) or “It is probable that it will rain tomorrow” (“probable” acts on “is.”) The fact remains that “likely” is an adjective and it means the same thing as “probable,” another adjective.

    When I teach writing, my purpose is to teach the writer to do everything possible to avoid distracting the reader. Using “likely” when you mean “probably” will distract some readers. Why take the chance? If you use “probably” instead, it will never distract the reader. To me, it’s that simple.

    All of that being said, your character can (and will) say and do whatever s/he likes. Only the narrator should be as invisible as possible, and erroneous usages call attention to the narrator. That’s my biggest gripe about the inappropriate usage of “likely.”


  2. It was really a pleasure for me reading all of your tips Harvey. Number 6 hits me up as I go on to what I feel about the word. My laziness strikes during those times. lol

  3. Thanks Daphne. I hope you’ve signed up. There’s a very strong series coming up, later this morning, in fact, on being a professional writer.

  4. I forgot to mention, you might also take a look at If you enjoy short fiction, I’ve challenged myself (and my alter egos) to write a new short story every week. To make it interesting, I’m posting a new short story as a blog post each Thursday. Many are available on the site now, and of course they’re also available through all major ebook outlets in over 100 nations worldwide. 🙂

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