1. Let it breathe
If you can, put your writing to one side. Let it sit for a day or two if at all possible – even a couple of hours can give you a fresh perspective. You’ll be surprised at what you can catch when you come back to it. Mistakes will seem to jump off the page at you, or you’ll think of a better way to word a sentence. It’s much better that you catch that than your readers.
2. Don’t trust spellcheck
Automated spelling and grammar checks have their uses, but they’re fairly limited. They tell you if you’ve spelled a word incorrectly, but not whether it was the correct word to use in that context. Did you mean emphasise or empathise? Form or from? Public or pubic (seriously, that’s a really common one). And, frankly, some of the grammar suggestions that Word can make are just … weird.
3. Change the font
Changing the font and/or the point size will force words onto different lines, giving it a fresh look and letting your brain see the text differently. You’ll pick up different errors this way, and then you can just change it back once you’re finished.
4. Print it out
We read differently when we look at a page of print rather than a screen. Many editors will print out hard copy to catch things they would have otherwise missed on-screen.
5 Use a ruler
Stop yourself from skimming along, reading what you expect to see rather than what’s on the page. Use a ruler to force yourself to slow down and read line by line, really taking in each individual word.
6. Make several passes
Rather than trying to do everything in one go, separate the various points you want to check into several passes. Read through for spelling first, then look again at the grammar, then check the punctuation. In a longer document you’ll want to take a separate pass to check the formatting of subtitles, page numbers, headers and footers.
7. Read your writing backwards
As weird as it sounds, starting from the end of a document and reading backwards, word by word, focuses you on spelling and word choice. You’ll also pick up repeated words that you may otherwise have missed.
8. Read it out loud
If you’re alone you can read your writing out loud to hear how the rhythm of the text sounds. If you’re in a busy office, put in your headphones and use the text-to-speech facility. You’ll pick up whether your sentences are long and rambling and in need of breaking down into more easily digestible parts. Or if they’re short. And all about the same length. Which can sound monotonous. And will quickly turn your reader off. No matter how great the content.
9. Ask a friend or colleague to check it
This can work well if you can set up a reciprocal arrangement with a colleague to check each other’s writing. However, it can quickly unravel if you’re producing a lot of content to check – how long can you keep relying on someone’s goodwill? After all, they’ve got their own work to do. And can you be sure that they’re going to do the job to a high standard? There’s much more to proofreading than picking up typos. Why not take the Society for Editors and Proofreaders test and see if you’ve got what it takes!
10. Call in a professional
OK, so this isn’t exactly a DIY solution. But if, despite all of these tips, you still worry that you’re missing things, or that you need help to tighten up your writing, then call in an expert, just as you would to rewire your house, or cut your hair, or service your car.
So there you have it. Ten ideas for cleaning up your writing. You certainly won’t need to use all of them. You might find that just one of these techniques is all it takes to give your writing that final polish. I’d love to know which ones work for you, so drop me a message in the comments and let me know!