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Five rules for proofreading your own work

Proofing principles to help make sure your writing shines

Audience: Writers

Last updated: 06 June 2022

Whether you’re working on a book, a blog, a poem, an essay or a report, proofreading your own work isn’t easy. It's easy to get sucked into thinking about what you intended to say rather than what you wrote down, and your eye will merrily skip right over glaring mistakes.

Proofs are actually typeset pages of the final book. I’ve explored some of their proofing principles below that you can just as easily use for competition entries, funding bids, e-updates or blogs to make sure they are as clean as possible.

If you take nothing else away from this blog, please remember this: proofreading isn’t redrafting, so make sure you’ve finished revising and tweaking the content before you start.

Don’t rush it

If you’re working on a book, distance is clarity. Put your manuscript away for a week or two (or longer if you can) and don’t even look at it in that time. If you can leave an article overnight, then do so.

Print your work out and make sure you include the page numbers. Proofreading involves looking very carefully at the pages in front of you, to make sure nothing is out of place or incorrect. And printing is important as the glare from a computer screen tires out your eyes and encourages skim-reading.

To give you an indication of the pace you should be going at, The Society for Editors and Proofreaders suggests a base rate of 10 pages per hour, and they are talking about trained proofreaders working on novel pages with about 300 words per page, not an A4 sheet with over 500 words. Proofreading 100,000 words can therefore take up to 35 hours. Measure your pace by proofing for an hour then counting the pages you’ve done.

Get into a correcting mindset, not a writing one

Once upon a time, a typesetter’s job was to arrange alphabet blocks into the right order to create a page of text on a huge machine. The proofs were the first printing, on cheap paper, to check that the blocks of type had been set out in the right order. It was expensive and arduous to change the sequence of letters, especially if any change meant that the next page would be affected, and so on. As a result, only essential changes were permitted and authors would be charged for fussy, non-essential edits

Even though making changes is far easier these days, this is the headspace you want to be in when you’re proofreading your own work. You need to imagine that you can’t change anything unless it’s incorrect –that means checking only spelling, grammar, punctuation, and not whether your lead character would have used the word ‘fortuitous’ instead of ‘lucky’.

Stop (re)writing and think about correcting. Take it sentence by sentence and check each one makes sense. Focus on your spelling, grammar and punctuation. If you start editing, you’ll be there forever and you’ll miss things through focusing on content rather than errors. If you see anything terrible that you really must fix, put in a note and come back to it another time.

Check on everything, and I mean EVERYTHING

You need to check the spelling of every location, name, referenced book title, brand – you name it. If it has an official handle, you need to check it. Irn-Bru, for instance, isn’t known as Iron Brew, Iron Bru or even Irn Bru. That hyphen is what makes it a trademark.

Watch out for similar-sounding spellings like McDermid and MacDiarmaid – do you know which spelling you should be using? Look it up. Does a name include the word ‘the’, such as The Lord of the Rings? Double-check dates, calculations (even in fiction, if you happen to have a character doing any basic maths around train timetables, shopping, money, make sure you haven’t made any stupid mistakes), quotes, and distances (Google it). A modern dictionary has the most common spellings – if you want to know whether it’s email, e-mail or eMail, check the most recent British English dictionary. Google is great on half-remembered points of grammar, and grammar bloggers are a rich source of extreme pedantry.

Maintain a consistent style

Get yourself a style guide if you want to know about where to use italics, quote marks etc, but don’t worry about that too much unless you’re trying to self-publish a book. Different countries use different rules and some publications use different house styles. If your work, university or publishing company has a house style, ask them for a copy and follow it as best you can, and ask them about anything you don’t understand. If you don’t have one, just make sure that you’re consistent in whatever usage you go for.

If your piece has dialogue in it, brush up on the correct way to punctuate dialogue before you start. Check that you haven’t switched from single quotes around dialogue to double quotes halfway through, that your paragraph formatting is all the same, and that your ellipses only have three dots.

If you’ve created a lot of names of places and people, or used a particular spelling where there’s a choice (eg, focussing/focusing), start a list of them and check every use of that word against your cheat sheet. Have a look over any chapter headings and sub-headings and make sure each level of heading has a consistent style. In poetry, make sure you have a rule for punctuation and capitalising at the start of lines, and then follow it. In concrete poetry, make sure that paragraph styling in Word isn’t interfering with your spacing, and if you mean something to have the same amount of space as something else, make sure it matches.

Get someone else to do it

Proofreading isn’t for everyone. If you know you don’t have a strong grasp of grammar, spelling and punctuation, there’s no shame in asking a friend who is good at these things for help. Even if you are usually great at it, you can never bring the same fresh eye to your own copy. Do make sure your friend knows the length and the time it might take; if you’ve written a new Game of Thrones, they’ll need to be a very good friend.

If you’re self-publishing a book, hire a professional proofreader. There simply isn’t another way to make sure that long text is clean enough. If you hire someone, look for experience in proofreading or copy-editing, not in creative writing or literature. Ask them how many books they’ve worked on. If the answer is none or fewer than ten, find someone else. Expect to pay according to the length, and remember the pages per hour count in point 1 – would you work for £2 per hour? Most publishers outsource proofreading to freelancers now, so ask a local publishing house for a recommendation if you can, or try the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.