Plot taut, character deep, dialogue natural, theme pervasive, description evocative.

We’re ready to go! (Yay!)

But first to proofing. (Boo.)

Two of my writing groups are currently gnawing on the problem of proof-reading your own work. Also a subject on my mind as I’ve just finished reading two award-winning books. Both contained glaring typos. ‘Hang on a momnt’, and, ‘For two years, I made tea, photocopied minutes and acted as his gopher’.

Anthony Horowitz, speaking at The Book People event last month, said Orion “published The Mouse of Slick with no fewer than 35 proof-reading errors. Their proof-reader tried to kill herself. She shot herself with a gnu.”

So here are some top tips from both pros and amateurs to help us all edit our texts, before releasing them to a world of red pens.

Stand back.

By the time you feel your book/essay/short story is ready for a final proofing, you are too close. You’ve become immune to the errors. The text looks fine to you, because your brain is on auto-correct. Put it away. Read something else. Write something else. Rob’s advice? ‘When you come back to it, it should be as a reader, not a writer.’

On screen.

Make good use of the spellchecker. It’s not infallible, but can be handy. Once you’ve gone through it once for the obvious, use the Search facility for common errors such as then/than, from/form, you’re/your, advice/advise, their/there/they’re, Then do it again for your own personal quirks. Susie has a blind spot when it comes to allowed/aloud, so she always runs a check for those words. Changing font can also draw the eye to previously invisible slips.

On paper.

It’s harder to spot mistakes on screen. Print it out (on recycled paper, naturally) and pick up a pencil.

Read it aloud. (That’s aloud, Susie.)

If you stumble over speaking the words, that’s a likely indicator of an error or awkward phrasing. Not only that, but it helps spot blunders like alliterative overkill, excess adverbiage or use of cliché, such as the sentence I indicated in the review below.

Four attractively burly uniformed officers spoke briefly to Bailey, then two of them ran round to the back of the building while the other two brandished their lethal weapon flashlights and pounded on the door.

Alternatively, super-proofer Liza suggests using Text-to-Speech software and hearing your words read to you. ‘Amazing how different it sounds.’ Top tip.


Proof in short bursts as it demands intense concentration. Decide what you’re proofing for – spelling, grammar or punctuation. It’s worth taking three runs at it for each area. Grammar checkers are less reliable than spellcheckers. Get a useful manual like The Writer’s ABC Checklist to help answer all those ‘Is it which or that?’ questions.

Janet reads hers backwards, whereas Max recommends turning it upside down. Nuria says change the font and Johnny torpedoes distorters. Whatever contortions you try, make sure they help you focus on your text.

 Get professional help.

I heard a story recently where someone refused to believe their text contained errors because it had been read by friends and family. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a circle of friends and relations who are skilled proofers, this won’t make much difference. (If they’re skilled roofers, mind, they could make a fortune.)

I just gave a competition entry to a pro copy editor, with a certain smugness. I’d hoovered that thing free of any little errant word mites, I was sure of it. The pages came back looking like a Post-It hedgehog.

Know the score.

Conventions differ between English-speaking nations, so you need to make a choice. I stubbornly stick to –ise as opposed to –ize, feeling like Joyce Grenfell on a small, eroding spit of sand. But be consistent, not only with your version of English, but in rendition of time, speech and foreign words, advises Daryl.

Finally, stick to your guns. Or gnus.

As George Orwell put it, “Break any of these rules sooner than say something outright barbarous.”

Unless of course, barbarous is what you aim for. Sometimes, you want to split that infinitive, refuse that colonic conformity and run amok with your adverbials hanging out.

But break those rules as a pioneer, not a pudding.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.