Editing and proofreading expert K.D. Sullivan shares tips & experiences

The Search Guru chats with K.D. Sullivan, CEO of Untreed Reads Publishing

For four years, I edited a full-color print magazine, one that was costly to produce. The tone of the publication was friendly, cheerful, upbeat and neighborly, while the audience consisted largely of conservative women in their 50s.

In one issue, we were including an article about a prestigious art museum and the museum had loaned us slides of numerous pieces of art to choose from as illustrations. The art director and I agreed upon our choices, and I wrote captions for them. The night before the magazine was ready to go to press, though, I heard the art director sounding frantic, telling me to look at the photo of the vase we’d selected.

So, I took another quick glance. “Yeah, still looks good to me,” I say, going back to whatever else I was doing.

He repeats, “Look at the vase.”

“I already did,” I impatiently reply, thinking there were far better ways for me to spend my time.

“Kelly Sagert,” he snaps, raising his voice sharply at me, something he’d never done before. “You look at that vase again right now!”

Knowing he was upset but not understanding why, I took a much closer look – and then I realized that the decoration on the vase, which he and I had earlier assumed were abstract squiggles, was really a graphic fertility symbol, one that would have offended our readers – which would have really upset our boss, who would have invested a significant amount of money in printing this full-color print publication.

Proofreading. Even when you think you’ve done a good job, you probably should do it again.

So, we at The Search Guru decided to ask other people in the communications industry about what proofreading tips and experiences they could share.

Nothing is straightforward, is it?

One strategy that I’ve used over the years ends up being a common one for people who proofread professionally in some capacity. Here it is:

  • Proofread backwards! ”Read it backwards, sentence by sentence. What you are looking for is missing words, confused tenses, inconsistent punctuation –these can be easier to spot if you are not reading it for sense, but instead concentrating on each individual line out of context.”  (Bridget Whelan, author of Back to Creative Writing School)

Bridget also brings up a key point that nobody else mentioned. Here it is, in her own words: “The hardest mistake to spot is also the one that could cause the most misunderstandings: leaving out the word not. I was once an agony aunt

[columnist who answers readers’ questions about their personal problems] who told an anxious reader that if I were in her shoes I would put up with a selfish, underhanded boyfriend…”

Shout it out!

Jenni Wiltz, novelist, copywriter and content editor with an MA in English, also uses the reading backwards trick, along with this one:

  • Read your work out loud. “When you’re familiar with the words on the page, it’s easy for your brain to ‘see’ what it knows should be there. Foil that impulse by reading your work out loud. It’s much easier to spot missing words this way, as well as identify sentences that just plain don’t make sense.”

And, Jenni is generous enough to admit that, even with all of her education and experience, she has “oops” moments. “The first time I self-published a book,” Jenni says, “I agonized over the draft for about two years. Finally, I uploaded it, wrote the description, clicked ‘publish,’ and pulled up my book on Amazon to show my husband. His eyes flicked over two lines and then stopped. ‘There’s a typo,’ he said.

Horrified, I snatched the computer back. He was right. I was too familiar with the subject matter to catch it. I should have had him look it over beforehand to catch the silly mistake I was too amped to spot. I fixed it right away, and crossed my fingers that no one outside my living room ever saw it.”

Lump-in-the-throat confession

Let’s face it, as professionals in the area of writing and communications, we feel as though our own writing should be perfect, pristine and error free. And, guess what? Not happening. Just like my inappropriate vase or Jenni’s typo, all we can strive for is our very best work. When you make a mistake, admit it, suck it up and fix it.

And, let’s be kind. In the words of Gregory Smith, former copywriter and current blogger: “Don’t overreact if someone makes a spelling or grammar mistake. Here’s the truth, everyone makes mistakes. Even professional proofreaders overlook mistakes occasionally, so if someone else does it, don’t go ballistic unless you want to make an enemy that will attack the minute you screw up.”

Gregory has another great suggestion. “Find a proofreading buddy. Sometimes reading your own copy is boring, so get a pair of fresh eyes. If there’s a proofreader in your company, be nice to him/her. Some proofreaders are good, but others are evil and will report you to your supervisor if you make too many mistakes.”

I’m blessed with two fantastic people at The Search Guru who proofread my work. So, here are virtual flowers and candy – and, heck, since it’s virtual, brand new cars! – to the two top-notch professionals who, among their many other duties, always find time to proofread my text.

Yes, there is a world offline. Seriously.

As Tony Harrison suggests, “Don’t proof on screen – print out a hard copy.”

Tony has had his own near misses with proofreading. He was reading a newsletter that he’d produced for a client and was proofing (using the reading backwards technique!) when he realized that he’d misspelled a client’s name; even worse, by using a real word (therefore not caught by a spellchecker) that made the name sound off-color. Fortunately, on his last round of proofing, he caught and corrected the potentially humiliating error.

More tips

  • Always proof headlines. Many people ignore the headline, but this is where typos often sneak in.” (David Brimm, a public relations and marketing communications expert)
  • (Yes! The typo in our opening headline is a joke! Sheesh.)
  • Leave as much time as you can between the writing and editing stage. Even a couple of days will give you a certain amount of distance so you can proofread with a cold eye, although Aristotle is supposed to have recommended nine years. (Bridget Whelan)
  • Trick your brain into forgetting that you wrote this blog post/article by proofreading it in a font that you would never normally use. I like courier for its old-fashioned typewriter quality. (Bridget Whelan)
  • Don’t change something just because the MS Word grammar check tells you
    to do so. Using it for spelling is a good idea. But in terms of grammar or
    usage, it’s frequently wrong. Even simple things, like subject-verb
    agreement, can throw off an electronic grammar checker. Longer sentences
    with multiple clauses confuse it even more. If you’re working with
    compound, complex sentences, think twice before accepting the grammar
    checker’s verdict. (Jenni Wiltz)
  • Shout out to Parker Geiger (brand development professional) for mentioning the amazing book, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” by Lynne Truss. (Picture a bowing “I’m not worthy” emoticon here. The book is that good.)

Proofreading Resources

What proofreading tips can you share? Leave them in the comments below!


2018-06-14T21:07:33+00:00February 21st, 2014|0 Comments

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