Recently, while attending a business breakfast organised by Fife Women in Business, I shared with fellow breakfasters a couple of tips for proofreading short documents more efficiently.
Afterwards, several people mentioned to me how useful they had found these tips, so I thought it would make sense to share them here on the blog in case others also find them helpful.
Read the text out loud
“I’ve already proofread this document five times. What difference could reading it out loud possibly make?” you may wonder. Prepare to be surprised. As powerful and clever as it is, our brain is not averse to playing the odd trick on us. Or rather our grey cells sometimes do their job too well and while we are reading, they automatically fill in any missing word they know should be there – even if we never actually wrote that word…
Quite apart from helping identify missing words, reading out loud gives us an opportunity to gauge the flow and – possibly even more importantly – the impact of our words. A turn of phrase that appears perfectly civil when one’s eye skims over it can come across quite differently when you actually ‘hear’. For example, it might sound more aggressive than you originally intended.
Begin at the end of the document and work backwards sentence by sentence
By reading the last sentence, then the penultimate sentence and so forth all the way back to the start of the document, you will stop your brain from going into automaton mode. This can happen all too easily, simply because it has already become familiar with reading the sentences in the correct order.
By disrupting the sentence order, you will make your brain work harder and focus better, so it’s less likely to skip over any typos, duplicated words or grammar gaffes. As a bonus, you’re also more likely to spot any missing full stops.
This advice is most applicable to short documents (up to, say, a couple of pages long). However, for practical reasons, it may not always be possible to read even a short document out loud. On such occasions, another skill is required: reading out loud “inside your head”.
This may sound a difficult skill to master, but you’d be amazed how easy it is and how effective it can be. Instead of just allowing your eyes to skim over the text as you normally would when reading silently, make yourself linger just a little longer on each word – pointing your finger at each word individually as you read it can make this easier – while in your head “hearing” that word read out loud.
Try these two techniques next time you’re proofreading an important email or letter and see if you spot anything you hadn’t noticed the first five times you read it!