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Zen and the art of proofreading

21 October 2016

Proofreading isn’t just a set of editorial skills, it’s a state of mind. By learning to slip into the right mindset you can become a better proofreader – no yoga mat required.

If you’ve ever tried to proof some copy after a long day of writing and emailing, you’ll know how tough it can be. When your brain’s buzzing, your eyes just ricochet off the words and your mind thinks to-do lists and office politics while mistakes sail by unnoticed.

But it’s not a case of simply feeling relaxed either. If you’re too chilled out, you’ll also miss errors. What’s needed is a special proofreading mindset. One between stimulation and relaxation in which you can gently notice what’s happening on the page and step in to correct any mess-ups.

Luckily, accessing this mindset doesn’t require silent meditation retreats or dodgy gurus. It’s as easy as taking in these practical tips.

Respect the proofreading stage

First up, proofing is a proper stage in the editorial process which takes time and effort – it shouldn’t be an after-thought.

So right at the start of the project, plan in a decent chunk of time for proofing. Please note: planning it in half an hour before the PDFs have to be with the printers is not conducive to a Zen state of mind.

Find your proofing place

Entering a separate physical space can help you access that elusive mental place that’s great for proofing. It also signals that you shouldn’t be disturbed by colleagues (headphones boost this effect).

An editorial agency I used to work at had an office couch that became the official go-to proofing area. There’s something very Zen about settling down with print-outs and a red pen. If accessing an office couch isn’t possible, try swapping desks with a colleague or even heading to the reception area for a bit.

Think tea, not coffee

Coffee is writing juice – it provides the pure caffeine boost you need to bash out initial ideas or get through a big pile of copy-editing.

Proofreading requires a gentler type of fuel. And that’s why a nice cup of tea (herbal, if you’re that way inclined) is perfect. It’ll help relax your senses, slow your pace and make it easier to spot mistakes. So before you begin, put the kettle on.

Watch words lose their meaning

Without getting all Wittgenstein, everyone who works with words sometimes wonders why a series of letters comes to mean the thing it does out in the real world. This isn’t great if you’re about to edit some direct mail copy. But it’s a useful state of mind for proofreading.

If you’re able to perceive a word as just a series of marks on the page (so that ‘couch’ becomes a mix of letters starting with ‘c’ and ending with ‘h’ rather than a battered old leather thing in the corner of your office) you’ll find it easier to isolate typos.

Some people find reading a page backwards from bottom to top helps with this. It can also be handy to read a page twice – once for meaning (did they mean ‘couch’ or ‘conch’?) and once for spelling errors.

Make it physical

One easy way to switch your mindset is by printing out what you need to proof and marking it up with a pen. This instantly changes your perception of the document. Spacing can be easier to suss out than on the screen and hidden typos become visible on paper.

Plus, do get to know how to use proof correction marks. While there’s no reason to get your head round some of the more obscure ones, there’s nothing more satisfying than scribbling the elegant ‘delete’ mark in the margin. Just trust me on this.

Let your eyes wander

After you’ve finished a page, let your eyes look beyond the text to take in diagrams, page numbers, captions and tables.

For some reason, it’s a given that at least one of the page numbers, or chapter headings, won’t match the contents. The same goes for pie charts. Always check the segments add up to 100% and the captions are correct.

Take a break after each page

Proofing is often intense work for your eyes, so let them gently ‘reset’ by giving them a break after each page.

Try looking out the window for a moment and focusing on the world outside. Or even take a quick glance at your phone – anything that allows your eyes to see something other than words on a page.

Remember, if you’re having a stressful day and none of this works: don’t worry. Putting it away until tomorrow (if you can) or giving it to someone else who’s in the mood will help ensure typos don’t get through.

Matt Chittock

copywriter, freelance

Matt Chittock is an experienced copywriter, journalist and proofreader working in the not-for-profit sector.