Proofreading from Hard Copy

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Few people now (with the possible exception of poets) write on paper.

For most of us, our thoughts take shape on screen, and our words exist as magnetic patterns on disk, rendered as phosphor dots, or the flat screen equivalent. Sometimes that’s the final form of the writing. It’s destined for the Web or another online destination, and may never exist in permanent form.

Of course, it has not always been this way. The only way of reading words, until recently was through marks on a writing surface such as paper, sometimes referred to derisively by techno-nerds as “sliced dead trees”.

This is the way we all learned to read, and many people still recommend proofreading long pieces of writing using printed output, since it comes more naturally to most than screen-based checking. For any long pieces of writing (“long” being over 1,000 words), I almost always print out my documents and sit down with a red pencil, away from the computer.

I’ve picked up some basic ideas in the course of years to deal with the problem of proofreading from paper. Some may work for you, some may not.

  • Use Courier, or some other non-proportional typeface. Mistakes (especially punctuation errors) often seem to show themselves more often when your writing appears in this form. Don’t try to lay the piece out in its final format – concentrate on the words, not the appearance.
  • Print out your work double-spaced, and leave wide margins at left and right for comments and corrections. Number the pages, especially if you print double-sided.
  • Don’t make the corrections on the computer as you find them. Move away from the computer, or at least close the file. When you have finished proofreading the entire piece, make the corrections on the computer, crossing them off on paper as you go.
  • Read your work out loud. It forces a higher level of concentration than silent reading.
  • Use a red (or at least a color other than black) pen or pencil to mark up your text. When you come to make the corrections on the computer, use another color (say blue) to check off the corrections as you make them.
  • Take the trouble to learn the standard proofreading signs and symbols. It means that you will be able to work on other people’s work, and they on yours when necessary.
  • For proofreading (i.e. basic spell-checking in context), read backwards (i.e. from the bottom of the page upwards). Since the words come in an unfamiliar and unnatural order, you are more likely to find mistakes than if
    you read forwards and read what you expect to see, instead of what’s already there.

As I say, you may not find that all these work for you, but all are worth trying at least once.

Hugh Ashton was born in the UK, and now lives in Kamakura, Japan, where he has lived for 21 years. He works as a writer and journalist, specializing in IT- and financial-related work. His first novel, Beneath Gray Skies, an alternate history novel dealing with a Confederacy in the 1920s, is available through Amazon, etc. Details here.

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15 thoughts on “Proofreading from Hard Copy”

  1. Absolutely agree! Most of us spend way too much time staring at computer screens, its actually a nice ‘break for the eyeballs’ and, speaking for myself, it kind of forces me to focus more because I am so used to just skimming the screen and depending on using spell check, etc. to find my mistakes as I go along.

  2. For multi-page reports, I find using a red pen to proofread a paper printout out loud and away from the computer always works best for me, too. (I hope that it’s not just a habit of the “mature” generation that will be lost to those younger.)

  3. Excellent post. I always print out my work and revise on hard copy. I may make a pass or two on the computer, but most of the revision/editing work I do is on paper. When I’ve revised things like this in a public place, I sometimes have people come up to me and tell me that I can do that on the computer. And they’re quite serious, as if I might not know. Funny how technology has made paper and pens obsolete for some people. I’ll continue right on with my hard copy revisions, though, as I believe they truly are the best way to find mistakes or other fixes in my writing.

  4. Good article. I would add one item to your list… Read your story aloud to a writing partner. This offers one added benefit: Your partner can offer a suggestion, correction or question that will lead to a better end product. Your writing partner may as for clarification to a point you thought was obvious. There’s a Talmudic proverb that states Never show half finished work to a fool, so my advice is to have a caring, knowledgeable, helpful, open-minded writing partner, as opposed to your mother-in-law (unless she happens to be a writer as well).

  5. I’ve also had work proofread by people who may not be familiar with the subject material. If they have questions, it allows me to take another look at what point I’m trying to make. Am I assuming everyone knows what the abbreviations stand for, etc.?

  6. These are excellent techniques for proofreading. I especially like the suggestion of using a different font for proofing.

    In another life, I was a draftsman. The RULE was that you always had someone else check your print (drawing) to look for mistakes. The idea was that if your brain/eye/hand made the mistake to begin with, it was most unlikely that you would find the mistake with a second look.

    If you absolutely had to check your own drawing, the method was to place a finger on every element and compare it to the rough drawing. Then you drew a line through it to show that you had checked it. Woe unto you if you overlooked a mistake.

    When I was learning to fly, my instructor taught me that the pre-flight check list was of paramount importance, along with the walk around the plane. Next time you are waiting to board your flight—look out the window and see your pilot walking around the airplane 🙂 I was also taught to put my hand out and touch the gauges as I checked them so that I would not skip ahead. (I doubt a commercial pilot reaches out to touch each gauge, but for the beginner it was an excellent learning technique).

    These lessons are equally applicable to writers. Use a check list. Do a walk around. Reach out and touch the word with your finger, then draw a line through it (in non-repro blue). And ask someone else to read it.

  7. Reading out loud is a good way to proofread. Even better: read out loud to someone who has another copy of the text in front of them.

  8. I just (kind of) wrote about this today as well. I always find my best mistakes on the white page instead of the blue screen.

    Thanks for this post and reminder on the different ways to edit!

  9. Deborah – Non-repro blue! I haven’t seen one of those pencils in years. In my previous life, I was an architecture student…… I agree a second set of eyes is MOST helpful.

  10. Proofing from a printed copy is a must. For long pieces and even just paragraphs. Being able to mark the corrections and then scratch them off when corrected helps make sure that you get them all.

    I also like to read paragraphs out of sequence to see if they make sense on their own.

    Edit, edit and then edit again. You want to put your best writing on view.

  11. We do something very much like what you describe. Here is our process.
    1. I do an on-screen proof to catch the obvious errors. This creates a tracked changes version.
    2. I accept the changes, creating a clean version, and print a hard copy.
    3. A second proofreader corrects the hard copy and enters changes in the tracked version file.
    4. I accept the changes and do another on-screen proof for quality control. I read this version out loud.
    5. If I find more than one remaining error every few pages, I figure that others may be present. I enter new corrections, and we start over at step 2.

    I’m always amazed at how many more errors we find in the hard copy than in the on-screen version. Tedious but necessary. And, yes, we use red pens. Our goal = fewer than 1 remaining error per 50 pages.

  12. I was a proofreader in a past (read: pre-computer) career. Good to see that the old methods still work!

    (Does anyone remember what ETAOIN SHRDLU means?)

  13. If I am going to be an English tutor, I will proofread my students’ essays and reports in green instead of red!!! Green does stand out very well as opposed to black.

    I love green, and green is my favorite color!!!!!!!!


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