You’ve finished writing. You’ve even read back through your essay, changed some awkward sentences, and swapped out a few boring words.
You’re patting yourself on the back for a job well done. So why do you have a sneaking suspicion that you’ve forgotten something important?
It’s because after you’ve been a revising rock star, you still need to edit.
Revising happens from the inside-out. It’s you, the author, reading back through what you’ve written and asking, “Can I make it better?”
But editing happens from the outside-in. You have to read your writing with a different perspective (three different perspectives, in fact). You have to become your audience and ask, “Does it make sense?”
Here’s exactly how to get out of your own head and view your writing with a fresh eye so you can edit like a pro.
Step 1: Read Like a (Brutally Honest) Friend
Think about a brutally honest friend who cares about you. The kind of friend who tells you if there’s spinach in your teeth. She knows you’ll be a little embarrassed when she points out the leafy green tooth ornament. But she also knows that’s nothing compared to the lifelong mortification you’d feel if you gave your entire history presentation with spinach in your teeth.
Become that friend and read what you wrote. Can you understand it? What sticks out and sounds bad? What just doesn’t work?
The best way to do this is to write comments as you read. Use Google Docs or the Review tools in Word. Ask questions, point out inconsistencies, and make suggestions for improvement.
As a good friend, your job is to speak up about whatever doubts you have. Try to imagine that it’s not your paper. You have to scrutinize the writing for anything that stands out like spinach in a smile.
Step 2: Read Like a Fact Checker
Next it’s time to become an objective reader who doesn’t know you at all. Your new persona is a fact checker. All you care about is whether something is true. It’s your job to tell people when they’re wrong, regardless of their feelings.
First, double check all of your evidence. If you used quotes, make sure that they are copied exactly and that your citations are correct, including the correct format. (Need some help? Check out this handy guide to MLA citation.) If you had to stick to a word limit, double and triple check that you did.
Next, check yourself on word use and idioms. Look, it’s happened to us all at one point or another: we hear an expression then use it in our own writing, only to discover that our transcription is off. (But sometimes not until we have been using the expression incorrectly for a while!)
Here’s an example:
The mistake: “The heavy workload was part and partial of the UC Berkeley experience.”
The correct phrase: “The heavy workload was part and parcel of the UC Berkeley experience.”
(By the way, that is a real mistake that I saw a teacher friend of mine make! She’s smart and pays attention and does 90% of things 95% right. This just goes to show that we can’t all be experts all the time!)
Sometimes we get all the words in an expression correct but use the whole expression at the wrong time.
Here’s an example:
The mistake: The candidate’s erratic behavior during the campaign begged the question what he would do if elected.
The correct phrase: The candidate’s erratic behavior during the campaign raised the question what he would do if elected.
To beg a question means to make a circular argument. But this expression is getting used incorrectly more and more often, in situations where people really mean ask a question. That’s why it’s good to be your own fact checker--sometimes lots of people are wrong!
Google is a great help for looking up idioms that you’re not 100% sure about, or that you’ve never seen in print.
Because it can look up strings of words, Google is also a helpful tool for determining whether you’ve used the right preposition. Just type both the word and the preposition you think it uses into a Google search.
Mini Quiz: Do you know which prepositions to use with the following words?
When using Google to help you fact check, look for results from online reference sites, such as dictionaries, universities, or well-known grammar help sites. You don’t want to take advice from someone who doesn’t know a gerund from a giraffe…
Step 3: Read Like a Robot
The third step is to become a heartless robot. Not the scary kind that learns how to think and decides to annihilate the human race. The kind with no imagination. The kind that says, “Does not compute!”
You need to be a robot because humans infer a lot of what we “read” from context and structural cues. This is fantastic for getting through a whole chapter of The Grapes of Wrath before your next English class. But it’s terrible for proofreading.
When you become an imagination-less robot, you’ll read in an entirely different way. You’ll stop reading for meaning and instead read one word at a time, as if you were consulting a checklist.
The key is to move painfully slowly and read only what’s there. Not what you meant to put there. Use your finger or a pencil to touch each word as you read it, or turn your mouse into a pointer. This will slow you down even further, and you’ll be training your eye to track word by word, rather than meaning by meaning.
Are you missing any words? Do you have extras? Pay special attention to sentences that span more than one line. It’s easy to miss a repeated word when the impostor is not right next to its victim.
Here’s an example of a classic “What’s wrong with it?” puzzle:
I love Paris in the
Look out for wrong spellings that Word or Google won’t catch, such as homophones (led versus lead) or letter transpositions (form versus from).
Pay special attention to proper nouns! Word has only a handful of proper nouns in its database. So as you typed your essay on The Crucible, you might have become very good at ignoring the squiggly, red line under every appearance of “Goody Osborne.” But when you proofread, read all the names with care so that you can find that one spot in paragraph three where you accidentally typed “Goody Obsorne.”
Good to know: Google will catch this kind of mistake because it is checking your words against their usage on the whole web, not just against a static dictionary! If you’re prone to misspellings of people, places, and famous things, or to typos more generally, try working in Google Docs.
Leave yourself enough time in your writing plan to edit and proofread as a friend, fact checker, and robot so that you catch all the little problems with your essay and really turn in your best work.
These three steps are a bit tedious. But they are also very straightforward. You don’t have to tax your brain with more creative thinking; you just need to be diligent. And the good news? The more you do these steps, the more efficient you’ll become at them.
Added bonus? You can use this plan for peer editing, too! Just swap papers with someone and share this post as well so that you both agree on the plan to proofread in all three ways.
Join the conversation!
What’s your proofreading process?
What tool or strategy has saved your bacon and helped you find all the “spinach?”
What’s the toughest part of proofreading for you? (If you write it in the comments, I’ll make a suggestion to help you tackle it!)