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Ask Susy: Help! I Suck at Proofreading My Own Work!

Ask Susy

Dear Susy,

Any advice on catching my own mistakes? I am an awesome proofreader for others, but I suck when it comes to editing my own work. I seem to be at my worst in the reports that go to the president of the company. I review back and forth, but there is always that one little thing…

—Can’t Handle the Proof, Sherbrooke, Quebec

Is there anything worse than that sinking feeling that comes with catching a typo after hitting “send?” We’ve all been there. We’re only human, and everyone makes mistakes. You should take comfort in knowing that you’re not the only who struggles when proofreading your own work. Even the most brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning writers make mistakes—and often! The difference is that their writing benefits from layers of review before going to print, and you, Ninja, are an editorial department of one.

That said, there are a few steps you can take to make sure your reports are free from errors and represent your stellar communication skills.

Identify Repeat Offenders

Most of us tend to make the same types of mistakes over and over again. For example, you may have a habit of inadvertently dropping words, mixing up “its” and “it’s,” or forgetting to capitalize according to your company’s style guide. Review past mistakes and see if you can identify a pattern. Once you’ve got a list of repeat offenders, conduct a special edit just for those mistakes in addition to your standard proofreading. Keyboard shortcuts can make this process go by faster—think using the search bar to scope out typo-prone words.

Know Your Zone

Are you at your best, detail-oriented self first thing in the morning? Or do you hit your stride around 11 AM? Maybe you get in the zone after 6 PM when everyone is packing up and the office is quieting down. Chances are you have an ideal time of day for editing and proofreading. Do some experimenting. Once you find your preferred time slot, block it off and use it to review important emails and reports.

Read Out Loud

Because we receive hundreds of daily emails, texts, and status updates, we’ve developed the ability to skim written materials and glean only the most important ideas and crucial information. This is a great skill for clearing out your inbox or plowing through the newspaper, but it works against you when you’re proofreading your own work. Reading out loud forces you to slow down and consider every word. It’s also easier to notice awkward wording or extraneous phrases when you can actually hear them. Try using a stage whisper at your desk, or grab an empty conference room if it’s a document worthy of full-voice review.

Print it Out

Sometimes a change of format is all you need to see your work in a different way. If you do most proofreading from a screen, trying switching gears by editing a hard copy with a brightly colored pen. Going analog will prevent you from being distracted by email and chat notifications, as well as other work that’s waiting for you in another window. Manual markup is also a great visual tool. Try drawing lines to help you focus on big chunks or to begin circling repeat offenders for reference later.

Air it Out

If possible, put some space between drafting your document and editing it. Write an email before heading home for the night and edit it first thing the next morning. Work on a report before lunch, but wait until after you’ve had some time away from your desk to go back and finalize. By letting your document “air out,” you allow yourself to come back with fresher eyes and a new perspective. Post-lunch Ninja you may think that report was written by someone completely different!

Call in Backup

For VIPs (very important projects), enlist a trusted a colleague to give your work a once-over. Be clear that you want their help identifying mistakes and don’t need feedback on the content itself. Try to request this kind of help judiciously; having another person proof your work isn’t time-efficient or sustainable. Plus, your co-workers have enough of their own work to keep them busy. Since you mentioned you’re great at proofreading others’ work, offer to return the favor to soften the time-sucking blow.

Good luck, Ninja. Stay diligent, but know that typos will happen. Forgive yourself, learn from your mistakes, and move on!

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  1. This is me all over…I’ve diagnosed myself to have an acute dyslexia because I always seem to miss out words, but my brain adds the missing words when reading it back…and when it’s too late, someone points out another stupid mistake.

    I just fear that it’ll come across as lazy…even though I’m trying

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