Proofreading

Proofreading is not an innate ability; it is an acquired skill. The following exercises will help you master it, or at any rate will impress you with how difficult it is.

Hints for successful proofreading:

- Cultivate a healthy sense of doubt. If there are types of errors you know you tend to make, double check for those.
- Read very slowly. If possible, read out loud. Read one word at a time.
- Read what is actually on the page, not what you think is there. (This is the most difficult sub-skill to acquire, particularly if you wrote what you are reading).
- Proofread more than once. If possible, work with someone else.

Most errors in written work are made unconsciously. There are two sources of unconscious error:

1. Faulty information from the kinesthetic memory. If you have always misspelled a word like "accommodate," you will unthinkingly misspell it again.
2. A split second of inattention. The mind works far faster than the pen or typewriter.

It is the unconscious nature of the work that makes proofreading so difficult. The student who turned in a paper saying, "I like girdle cakes for breakfast" did not have a perverted digestion. He thought he had written "griddle cakes" and because that's what he was sure he had written, that's what he "saw" when he proofread. If he had slowed down and read word by word, out loud, he might have caught the error. You have to doubt every word in order to catch every mistake.

Another reason for deliberately slowing down is that when you read normally, you often see only the shells of words—the first and last few letters, perhaps. You "fix your eyes" on the print only three or four times per line, or less. You take in the words between your fixation points with your peripheral vision, which gets less accurate the farther it is from the point. The average reader can only take in six letters accurately with one fixation. This means you have to fix your eyes on almost every word you have written, and do it twice in longer words, in order to proofread accurately. You have to look at the word, not slide over it.

In proofreading, you can take nothing for granted, because unconscious mistakes are so easy to make. It helps to read out loud, because (1) you are forced to slow down and (2) you hear what you are reading as well as seeing it, so you are using two senses. It is often possible to hear a mistake, such as an omitted or repeated word, that you have not seen.

Professional editors proofread as many as ten times. Publishing houses hire teams of readers to work in pairs, out loud. And still errors occur.

Remember that it is twice as hard to detect mistakes in your own work as in someone else's!

Reproduced by permission from RSSL, University of Maryland

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