Is it an art?
You could argue that proofreading is not an art, but it is certainly under-used and under-appreciated.
The best manual or web site can be made worthless by a lot of careless mistakes. First, there’s the confusion that typos cause. Second, there’s the fact that typos reduce the reader’s confidence in what you are trying to say.
Most word processors come with helpful tools that reduce the number of silly errors that proofreading can catch. Some of these include:
- Spell checkers
- Grammar checkers
- Automatic numbering of steps
- Automatic cross referencing – references to, for example, “see Figure 3 on Page 12.” Cross references such as this can be entered in such a way that if the figure number or page number changes, the reference to that item within the text will change also. This is a big help in eliminating careless mistakes.
- Automatic numbering of sections, figures, tables, etc.
- Automatic creation of Tables of Contents or Indexes
Some of these features are easy to use (spell checkers and grammar checkers). Some, however, may not function exactly the way you want, particularly if you are using the world’s most popular word-processing software (and you know what I mean).
Although spell checkers and grammar checkers do a great deal to eliminate those sneaky little typos, they cannot replace a human being proofreading your work.
Why people still need to proofread
Although I hate to sound like a Luddite, the automatic tools are no guarantee that your document will be error free. For instance, if you use the automatic Table of Contents feature and add pages to your document but fail to click the automatic update button, your Table of Contents could still be wrong.
There’s also the problem of whole pieces of text being deleted (or not deleted) – who would notice this but a human reader? Technically, finding mistakes like this isn’t exactly proofreading, but any proofreader worth his or her salt will catch errors like this.
Nothing will replace the human effort involved in proofreading. Consider, for example, the case of a manual for Widget Model 453. Chapter 1 refers to it correctly as Model Number 453 but Chapter 2 refers, mistakenly, to Model Number 454. This is something that only a human proofreader could catch.
Likewise, if an important word is left out of a sentence, a grammar checker will not catch the mistake. For example, if the sentence reads “Do insert the wet plug into the socket,” only a human proofreader will know that it should read “Do not insert the wet plug in the socket.”
Here are a few proofreading tips that may help you eliminate these types of errors:
- Don’t proofread what you have written – give it to someone else. It’s always hard to find the mistakes you yourself have made.
- Proofread for different elements in different passes. For example, in the first pass, check headers and footers. In the second pass, check for correctly numbered steps and cross references. In the third pass, check for correctly numbered figures. In the fourth, check Table of Contents, etc. In the last step, read the document aloud as described below.
- Reading the document aloud slowly is probably the best proofreading trick there is. If you read aloud and concentrate on every word, you will most certainly notice mistakes that you would otherwise have missed.
- If possible, when reading the document aloud, have someone else follow along silently. This almost guarantees you’ll catch those nasty little mistakes.
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