Did you ever spend hours going over the same document again and again, and found yourself automatically skipping over whole words and sentences, because you already read it so many times that your brain just goes on autopilot?
Proofreading is an important but tedious part of writing. The problem is that since your brain already knows what to expect, it tends to partially autocomplete texts that you read, and shows you what it thinks should be there, rather than what is actually there. This is a part of our tendency to conduct good-enough processing, where we subconsciously prefer to misinterpret and ‘autocorrect’ texts when the true content is problematic for some reason.
While there is no perfect way to solve this, there are some tips which can help you proofread texts more effectively. Most of these tips focus on tricking your brain into thinking that the text you’re encountering is new, and therefore to avoid the ‘autopilot mode’ which prevents you from noticing your mistakes. Others will be useful for proofreading in general, and will show you how to proofread manuscripts more effectively in general, even if you’re seeing them for the first time.
Change the font
Changing the font is one of the easiest ways to make a text look distinctly different. The choice of which font to use is up to you; in general, the more distinct the font looks, and the more different it is from the original font that you used, the better. However, make sure to account for legibility, and use something that is convenient for you to read.
There are two common suggestions for fonts that you can use when proofreading:
- Comic Sans– this is a highly-informal font, which works great because it looks so distinct from the fonts that you would usually use in order to write formal texts.
- DPCustomMono2– this is a font which was developed by the proofreading community, in order to help readers spot common typographical errors. However, note that the type of errors that it was designed to detect are those that you will usually spot using your writing software.
Change the format
Another thing you can do is change the format in which you read the paper. For example, if you wrote it in Word, then export the draft to PDF and read it like that.
This will have a relatively small effect, but is a relatively simple solution to implement, without requiring much effort on your part.
Read it on paper
Most of us write our texts in an electronic word processor. However, printing it out during the proofreading stage can be beneficial, since it makes the text feel new, and since studies have shown that reading the text on paper can lead to better performance in proofreading tasks, compared to proofreading on a screen.
Essentially, this is a less convenient way to change the format of the paper compared to changing the software that you use to read it, but it is also a more effective way to proofread.
Change the environment
Changing the environment in which you read the text can also help. For example, if you originally wrote the paper on a laptop in your room, you can print it out and read it outside, or go work on a desktop in the library.
Read the text aloud
Read the paper aloud to yourself. This is especially useful in spotting problems with the flow of the text, since it roughly shows you what the text will sound like to the person reading it. If you can find someone to read it to, that can also help you find the motivation to do this.
Have someone read the text to you
Having someone else read the text to you is another great way to spot errors. The easiest way to get this done is by having your computer read it aloud. There are several methods for doing this, and your choice should depend on the length of the text and on your personal preferences. The most common methods for doing this are:
- Online software- an easy plug-and-play solution, since there are a lot of free options that you can take advantage of (such as Google Translate).
- Downloadable software- search for “speech synthesizer” or “text to speech” software.
- Built-in word processor/operating system function- to figure out whether this option is available to you and how to activate it, simply look up the name of your word processor/OS, together with the relevant keywords (e.g. “text to speech”).
Get someone else to help you proofread
Getting someone to look at your text with a fresh pair of eyes can always be beneficial. One way to facilitate this in a college context is to trade papers with someone, so that each of you proofreads the other person’s paper.
In addition, you can also collaborate with someone, and proofread the same text together. Research shows that proofreading in pairs helps spot more errors, and especially “surface errors”, which involve primarily incorrect word usage.
Make sure you’re not too tired
When you’re tired, your proofreading ability suffers. The optimal solution is to avoid proofreading when you’re tired. However, if that’s not an option, then you can take some stimulants to help you be more alert, and proofread more effectively.
Studies show, for example, that when people try to proofread when they’re tired, their performance improves if they consume something with caffeine, such as coffee, tea, or chocolate. Other solutions, such as chewing gum, may also be viable, as long as they ensure that you’re awake and alert throughout the proofreading process.
Give it time
The best solution to making sure that the text feels new is to wait as much time as possible between the writing stage and the proofreading stage. To ensure that this is an option, you will usually have to plan ahead accordingly, in order to ensure that you have enough time after you finish writing the initial draft of the text before you have to submit the final version.
While waiting a lot of time between writing and proofreading is not always an option, keep in mind that even a short break that allows you to clear your head will be beneficial. Getting some sleep is especially good for this, and can significantly help you approach the text with relatively fresh eyes.
Summary and conclusions
- Catching mistakes at the proofreading stage is difficult, especially if you’re already highly familiar with the text, to a degree where your mind goes on a sort of autopilot mode, and misses a lot of the mistakes that you made. However, there are several techniques that you can use in order to proofread texts more effectively.
- First, you can make the text feel new by changing the font, so that you read it in a different font than the one you wrote it in, by changing the file format, so that you read it in a different software than the one you wrote it in, or by changing the environment, so that you read it in a different place than the one you wrote it in. If you wrote the text on your computer, you can also print it out on paper, which is a format that generally facilitates the proofreading process, though it requires a bit more effort on your part.
- You can also read the text aloud, or have someone else read it to you, in order to increase the chance of spotting new errors. One way in which you can have it read aloud to you is by using text-to-speech software.
- Another option is to have someone else help you proofread the paper. They will be able to read the paper with fresh eyes, and research shows that collaborative editing can sometimes facilitate the proofreading process.
- The most effective way to help you proofread a paper that you wrote is to create a significant time gap between the writing stage and the proofreading stage. The longer you can wait the better, but even a short break or a good night’s sleep can help you proofread more effectively.