Clean Copy

The Fine Art of Proofreading

Placenta and placemat, the difference is obvious. Or maybe not.

Everyone knows how easy it is to misspell words, especially if you’re going like gangbusters on the computer. No matter how good a typist you are, fast fingers tend to strike the wrong keys from time to time. And everyone knows how unprofessional and sloppy it looks when you receive a letter, story or email riddled with typos.

Proofreading can be time consuming and boring. But it’s also necessary. Especially if you’re wrapping up a report for work, submitting an article to a magazine or writing the final draft of The Great Canadian Novel.

And the frustrating part of it is, once you write something, your eyes and brain tend to see what you meant to write, not what’s actually on the page or monitor screen. So you can read the text over and over and never spot the typos.

Here’s an example I found at

Accdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Proofreading tips

  • Proof more than once. Professional proofreaders think nothing of going over a document 10 times or more.
  • If you have misspelled a word in the past, chances are you will do so again.
  • Read what you see, not what you think is there.
  • Do your proofreading in a quiet place where you won’t be distracted.
  • Read the text out loud.
  • After you finish writing something, set it aside and proof it later. (The next day is best.)
  • Have someone else proofread your work; they’ll spot things you miss.
  • Proof a print copy, as well as from the computer monitor.

And then there’s spell check, a wonderful invention that catches misspelled words and grammatical errors. But it’s not foolproof. Spell check doesn’t differentiate between here and hear, to and two or bare and bear. As long as a word is spelled correctly, it isn’t highlighted.

And sometimes strange things happen. An article I wrote for a newspaper contained a word that didn’t belong in it. I didn’t put it there, spell check did. I didn’t notice it and neither did the editor. Luckily, a proofreader did.

When the editor called to check the wording and read, “The company is presenting a new line of colourful placentas,” I laughed so hard I nearly fell out of my chair. The correct word, of course, was placemats. Somehow during the spell check my hand must have spasmed and clicked placenta to replace the misspelled word placemat.

So, if you want people to be engaged in your content, not distracted by typos and spelling mistakes, take time to proofread. And yes, that means emails too.

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3 Responses to Clean Copy

  1. Sharon Urdahl says:

    Great advice Paula, it is so easy to over look the obvious…and 10 times really is a requirement for those of us who are not the best of spellers. I personally feel it is important to proof a hard copy, though I can’t explain why. Looking forward to more of your tips and words of wisdom.

    • Paula says:

      And thank you, Sharon, for catching a typo on my website! A clear case of reading what I thought was there, not what I actually saw. I agree that proofing a hard copy is best. I think our eyes are more suited to reading paper than from a computer screen.

  2. Rosie Gray says:

    This is such good advice! I especially need the reminder to “read what you see, not what you think is there”.

    Looking forward to some more posts from you Paula.

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