5 Ways to Proofread Like a Pro

Tried and true strategies for ensuring messages are error free, clear and clean

A hand writing on paper.
Image courtesy of Big Stock.

Chris Calender spends much of his day crafting emails that get colleagues acquainted with Duke University Hospital’s case management system or resolve questions from patients or providers. 

But before he hits send on the dozens of messages he writes each day, Calender, an administrative assistant in the Duke University Hospital Case Management Department, takes a moment to read over them.

Chris Calender “Proofreading comes up every day with what I do,” Calender said. “I proofread my writing quite a bit. It helps me work for brevity and to communicate things clearly and in a neutral tone.”

Often thought of as a skill needed by writers and editors, the ability to proofread a piece of writing effectively is useful for many roles at Duke. That’s because, from magazine articles to research documents, or important email messages, odds are, during the course of an average day, staff and faculty write something that other people need to read and understand. By taking time to proofread your text to catch errors and sharpen a message, you ensure you come off professional and readers get what you’re trying to relay.

“I often hear people talk about how they may not have gotten much done during a particular time, they say they just dealt with emails,” said Eliana Schonberg, associate professor of the practice and director of the Thompson Writing Program Writing Studio. “That’s still a tremendous amount of brain power and writing work. So, it’s important to honor the labor we put into making those things happen and feel proud of those written documents, even if they’re short, and we produce many of them.”

Most of the roughly 3,000 individual appointments made each year at the Thompson Writing Program’s Writing Studio are by student writers looking for help organizing, structuring, or focusing pieces of writing, ranging from class assignments to graduate dissertations.

But there are also appointments where writers want to dive into the finer points of editing their copy. When it comes to strategies for editing, or specifically proofreading, Duke’s experienced wordsmiths, have tips that colleagues across Duke can embrace.

Return with Fresh Eyes

Eliana Schonberg of the Thompson Writing Program Writing Studio helps students, and others at Duke, structure, organize and focus writing pieces. Photo courtesy of Eliana Schonberg. When you’re ready to proofread something you wrote, Schonberg and the TWP Writing Studio consultants recommend taking a moment to walk away before you do it. Giving yourself a short break – perhaps a minute or two – provides a degree of mental separation from the just-completed writing process and allows you to read your piece with fresh eyes.

“Taking that time allows writers to put themselves into the role of a reader,” Schonberg said. “As writers, we get stuck in our own heads and it’s hard to read our work from the perspective of someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time thinking about it.”

Schonberg, who occasionally grabs a cup of coffee or water before proofreading her writing, said by reading over the text after taking a short break, you see where readers may get confused, or where you need to add more information. And with a new perspective, you can also better catch typos or small errors.

“By giving ourselves some space from what we’ve just written, it allows us to look at the text with fresh eyes,” Schonberg said. “Maybe we left out an important idea or word because our fingers can move faster than our brain when we’re typing. It can help us catch minor issues as well as more significant ones.”

Read Words Aloud

Another way to experience a piece of writing from the perspective of a reader is to listen to it. Whether you read your piece aloud, or if possible, have someone else do it, it’s a great way to judge the tone, pacing and clarity of what you’ve written.

“It helps you to quite literally hear it with fresh ears, namely your own ears as opposed to the reading voice in your head,” Schonberg said. “It’s just forcing us to engage our brain in a different way with the thoughts we’ve had, and the ideas we’ve put on the page.”

Think of Your Reader

Aaron Welborn As part of his role as the director of communications for Duke University Libraries, Aaron Welborn proofreads a wide array of documents. Among the writing that comes across his desk are articles for the magazines of Rubenstein Library and Duke University Libraries, posts for the libraries’ website, and informational panels for the many exhibits that pass through library spaces, which are uniquely high-stakes proofing jobs.

“Once it’s on the wall, it’s almost impossible to go back and fix it if there’s a mistake,” Welborn said.

Along with a variety of types of writing Welborn touches, there’s also a variety of people who read it. When he’s proofreading, he said he’s always considering the audience for each piece, and using that to guide word choices, sentence length and tone. 

“You always have to keep in mind who’s going to be reading this,” Welborn said. “For example, if I’m writing an email to my boss, I want it to be super short, because my boss is busy and they don’t always want a long email from me. But if it’s a magazine article where the reader may not know as much as I do, and they’d like to know more, it’s OK for things to be a little longer.”

Be Aware of Habits

Duke University Hospital Case Management Department Administrative Assistant Chris Calender often find himself writing emails that are too long. He knows extra words will obscure his message, but sometimes it’s tough to avoid them.

“It’s a simple truth, a long message will not get read,” said Calender, a 2019 graduate of the Certified Executive Administrative Professional program offered through Duke Learning & Organizational Development. “So, I’ll usually read over my message to tighten it up and make sure I focus on the basics.” 

Whether writing long emails or repeating words or phrases, take note of writing habits and address them if you feel there’s a need to.

“If you’re someone who tends to write really short sentences, think about whether there’s a good opportunity for some longer ones,” Schonberg said. “If you’re someone who writes really long paragraphs with lots of information in them, ask yourself if there’s something that you might be able to break up and make easier for readers to absorb. Whatever habits you tend to fall back on over and over, those are often the places you may want to look at introducing some variation.”

Where to Look for Help

Aaron Welborn proofreading. When proofreading, it’s inevitable you’ll run into grammar, spelling or punctuation questions. For instance, do you spell out the word “percent,” or use the symbol? When do you abbreviate “street” when writing an address? When do you capitalize someone’s job title and when do you not?

Answers can be found in several reference books, or style guides, geared to writers in specific disciplines. Journalistsscholarsresearchers and others have style guides geared toward their specific types of writing. Welborn of Duke Libraries said he often consults the Chicago Manual of Style, a reference book for writers and editors that can be accessed online through Duke University Libraries. 

“I live and die by the Chicago Manual of Style,” Welborn said. “There are always little odd grammatical questions, usage questions, format questions, punctuation questions that come up, and the Chicago guide seems to have thought of an answer to every single one.”

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