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5 Tips for Keeping Your Critical Distance While Proofreading

It can be hard to focus on proofreading if you’re too involved in a text, or if you’ve made several passes already and you’re now too familiar with it to easily spot errors. But there are things you can do to maintain critical distance when proofreading, including:

  1. Change your perspective on the document by proofreading backwards or printing it out.
  2. Read problem passages out loud.
  3. Focus on one type of error at a time.
  4. Take some time away and come back with fresh eyes.
  5. Share the burden by collaborating with another proofreader or editor.

For more on all the above, check out our advice below.

1. Change Your Perspective

When struggling to focus on a document, it can help to change perspective. Options include:

  1. Proofreading backwards (i.e., start with the final line on the last page and work your way back, sentence by sentence, until you reach the start of the document).
  2. Printing the document out and proofreading it on paper.
  3. Changing the font between passes so the text looks different on the screen (but don’t forget to change it back before returning the edited document to your client).

The idea here is to make the document feel different on a second or third pass. This forces you to pay close attention, which isn’t always simple when you already know what it says.

2. Read Problem Passages Out Loud

If you find yourself stuck on a specific passage in a document, try reading it out loud.

This makes you engage with each word rather than just skimming through. It also means you can literally “hear” problems with the flow of text, which is hard when just looking at the page.

Despite the advice in the previous point, though, we don’t suggest trying to read sentences out loud backwards. If nothing else, this might sound a little satanic to anyone nearby.

3. Focus on One Type of Error at a Time

If there’s a lot to keep track of in a document, try focusing on one type or error at a time (e.g., spelling errors on the first pass, punctuation on the second, and so on).

This may be slower, so it can feel counterintuitive. But it can help when you’re finding a document difficult to follow as you only have to look for one problem on any given pass.

4. Take a Break

If the deadline allows, take some time away between passes. Ideally, this will involve getting some rest and time away from your computer. After all, something that looked impossible in the evening often looks much more manageable after a good night’s sleep!

But if time is tight, just take a break. Go for a walk. Or do some chores. The key is taking enough time away that you come back to the document refreshed, helping you stay focused.

The same applies when proofreading long documents. Nobody can concentrate indefinitely, so if you try to read tens of thousands of words in a single sitting, you will make mistakes. But if you plan your time and take regular breaks, your work should improve accordingly.

5. Share the Work

Sometimes it’s better to share the burden! If you’ve copy edited an entire novel manuscript, for instance, and the client asks you to proofread it as well, you may want to suggest a fresh pair of eyes for the final check, especially if you’ve already read through it several times.

This might seem like a big step – turning down work can be scary if you’re not sure where the next job is coming from. But the more familiar you are with a document, the harder it is to maintain critical distance (this is part of why people shouldn’t proofread their own work). And if you can’t focus on the fine detail of the text, you’re more likely to make mistakes.

By passing the final check on to another proofreader, you avoid this problem and (with any luck) end the day with a happy client. And this doesn’t have to be a one-way street! If you pass on work to another freelancer, they’re usually happy to repay the favor in the future.

Becoming A Proofreader

Good editing isn’t just about maintaining critical distance from the text. For more advice on effective proofreading, from common spelling errors to watch out for to helpful tips on finding work as a freelancer, try our Becoming A Proofreader course. Sign up for a free trial today and find out how proofreading could work for you without even paying a penny!

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