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Tips & Tricks for Polishing & Proofreading

Updated: Jul 12, 2018

I’m going to make an admission—I am fantastic at proofreading and editing other people’s work, but when it comes to my own work, it’s a bit of a struggle. Sometimes, as I read through a draft, my brain fills in words that aren’t on the page, glossing over errors. I’m sure I’m not alone here.

So this week’s post is a practical one, one born from my time teaching college students about writing. These are my tips and tricks for proofreading.

Common Errors

The most common errors I see are:

  • Run-on sentences

  • Comma splices

  • Sentence fragments

  • Using "which" when you need a "that" and vice versa

  • Typos

  • Lack of clarity/imprecise language

Let's talk about some simple steps you can take to minimize these errors in your work.

Polishing Plan

Read aloud. Listen for places where things sound wrong and places where you stumble over words. These are usually indicators that something is not quite right with the wording.

Read your work from the last sentence to the first sentence, looking carefully at the words that you read. Are they spelled right? This keeps your brain from filling in intended meaning.

Give yourself at least a day to put the draft aside, if possible. If you try to proofread immediately after writing it, you are almost guaranteed to miss errors because your brain automatically fills in what you were thinking instead of what’s on the page. This, of course, may not be possible with emails that require quick turnaround, but you can definitely apply this strategy to planned web content, whitepapers, and presentation materials.

Hit Control+F, and then type “their” in the find box. Look at every use of “their,” and make sure you are using the correct version of this homophone. Then, go back and repeat for “there” and “they’re,” as well as “you’re” and “your.” Let’s add “its,” “it’s,” “to,” and “too” while we’re at it.

  • Their = ownership - “Their ball is in the street.”

  • There = location - “The ball is over there” or existence “There is a ball.”

  • They’re = they are - “They’re playing ball.”

  • You’re = you are - “You’re really tall.”

  • Your = ownership - “Your height is above average.”

  • It’s = it is - “It’s a beautiful day”

  • Its = ownership - “Its kittens were black.”

  • To = a directive - “Give the ball to the cat.”

  • Too = also - “I want a kitten too!” or excess “It’s too cute!”

  • Two = quantity - "I have two pieces of candy."

Make sure that every time  you use “I,” you have capitalized it. Self-explanatory. We're in the texting era.

Look for common fragment starters: If your sentence begins with “for example,” “because,” or “which,” make sure it’s actually a complete sentence. “For example, Casper the Friendly Ghost” isn’t a sentence; it’s a fragment or a dependent clause. However, “For example, Casper the Friendly Ghost is a cartoon where the supernatural comes into play” would be considered a complete, independent clause. Casper the Friendly Ghost is the agent. In order for this to be a sentence, that agent has to complete an action. In this case, it’s a simple one. The shows exists, signified by the word “is.”

Definitely is spelled d-e-f-i-n-i-t-e-l-y NOT d-e-f-i-a-n-t-l-y. Defiantly means disobediently, not certainly. This is just a personal pet peeve.

Which or that? There is a difference between “that” and “which.” “Which” refers to something that is simply an attribute or added on. “That” reflects something that cannot be removed from the subject to which it refers. I recommend that you listen to this podcast from GrammarGirl. It will help clarify the difference.

Do you have any strategies for proofreading? Share in the comments. I'd love to hear about them!
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Aug 23, 2021

I also think it is important to have a proof reader who is not attached to the content in any way, if possible. If a SME or stakeholder (or other associated party) reviews it, their brains may fill things in that aren't there - or remove things that are - similar to how the writer/developer might, simply because of close association with the topic and discussing the materials.


Greg Williams
Greg Williams
May 28, 2020

The word that ALWAYS gets me is "trial". "Use your trail account to complete the activity." UGHGHG. Your points of read aloud and giving yourself a day or two are so important. It is amazing what difference this can make. Thanks for this post, it is a great resource!

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