1. Go to the Zone
Again, proofreading is a different skill than writing or editing and it requires a different mindset. As you take this final pass at your paper, you must resist the urge to think the big thoughts. Ignore content. Get out your magnifying glass and drop down to the level of sentences and individual words.
2. Divide Tasks
Don’t read your paper through from beginning to end and try to catch every error. Instead, approach each proofreading task separately. First, check spelling. Next, read sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph for syntax errors. (I suggest you read backwards. Read on.) Next, check formatting and design issues.
If you approach each proofreading task separately, you will be sure that you complete each proofreading task and that you give each task the attention it needs.
Oops! I mean spell check. Spellcheck is annoying—and annoyingly smart. (Why does it remind me of the Recalculating voice on my GPS?) Spellcheck should be your front-line defense against embarrassing spelling errors. It won’t catch misused words, such as principal instead of principle, but it will catch most of your spelling errors.
Many lawyers avoid spell checking because Spellcheck highlights many legal terms as spelling errors. However, if you add these words to your custom dictionary, Spellcheck will stop chastising you every time you use these words. (To add a word to your custom dictionary, right click on the squiggled word and click Add to Dictionary in the pop-up box. If Add to Dictionary does not show up as an option, it’s because you have not yet created a custom dictionary. I’ll post on that fascinating topic later.) Add common legal terms, client’s names and technical terms that you use frequently to your custom dictionary.
4. Read Your Work s l o w l y
Spellcheck will not reliably differentiate between common homonyms, such as there and their, or catch properly-spelled-but-misused words such as complaint, instead of compliant. So you must actually read your work at least once to catch errors. The key is to read slowly. But how do you slow your self down?
5. Read Backwards by Paragraph
Most of us are so programmed to work at top speed that we need a technique to slow us down to proofreading speed. First, print out your paper. Then work backwards from the end of the paper to the beginning. Some people suggest reading each line backwards or each sentence backwards, but that level of backwardness is too glacial for me. Instead, try reading backwards by paragraph. Treat each paragraph as if it were an island. Start with the last paragraph and read it through. Then move up to the second-to-last paragraph and so on. If you are really error prone, treat each sentence as an island and work backward sentence-by-sentence.
6. Put a Check Beside Each Paragraph As You Read
Once you are satisfied with a paragraph or sentence, put a check beside it. The hand slows the mind down, so manually putting a check beside each paragraph or sentence will force you to read carefully.
7. Review Headings Separately from Text
Substantive headings are an editing tool because they verify a strong foundation. Therefore, even if your paper does not require a separate table of contents, treat your headings as a unique unit and review them separately. Are headings correctly numbered? (Again, confusing standard numbering will make your headings work against you, rather than for you.) Does each heading lead into the next? Are all headings written in parallel grammatical structure? Are subheadings correctly labeled?
8. Use Your Word-Processing Program to Help You Proofread
As you write, use word-processing features to avoid errors. Use the Autocorrect function to correct proper nouns that you often misspell, to be sure you are using your chosen identifying terms throughout, or to assure consistent usage (such as % instead of percentage or its instead of it’s). (To add a word to Autocorrect, click on the File tab/click Options/click Proofing/click Autocorrect Options/check Replace text as you type/fill in the word you want replaced and the word you want to replace it with/click OK. ) Set up Grammarcheck to require periods inside quotations. (Click on the File tab/click Options/select Proofing/in the box for When correcting grammar and spelling in Microsoft Word, click Setting/click Punctuation required with quotes/select Inside.)
Once you are done writing, use the Find function to weed out pesky constructions and common punctuation errors. Search for by to weed out passive voice and for ment and ion to weed out nominalizations. Weed out pesky adverbs by searching for ly. And keep a mental list of terms that you commonly misspell and then search for those terms. I can’t spell lose for the life of me, so I always search for loose as part of my proofing ritual.
By the way, it took me forever to proof this post!
P.S. from the Shameless-Self -Promotion Department: My Book has lots more tips like this!