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.