As a professional writer, editor and communications guy, I've done a hell of a lot of proofreading over the years. I've proofread just about every kind of document there is, from gigantic government policy papers to tiny event invitations and everything in between. I proofread my wife's writings, my current public relations class assignments, these blog posts and even my Facebook and Twitter posts before I press 'Send'.
This is not to say that I'm necessarily the world's most brilliant proofreader. Actually I'm not. I've had bad days or even weeks when I've let all kinds of egregious mistakes slip the net, sometimes in other people's work but more often in my own. There have been times when I've had to go back and edit my own blog posts after finding spelling mistakes and I've even deleted and reposted Facebook posts after that 'egad' moment where you catch a glaring typo a split second too late. I've even deleted misspelled Tweets ('Twuckups' as they're known), although you can never truly 'delete' a Tweet. Once it's out there, it's out there for good.
Nor do I particularly enjoy proofreading. Actually, it's one of my least favourite activities, down there with scraping frost off the car windows, cleaning the fridge and pulling the drawstring out from inside my swimsuit after a particularly rough journey through the washing machine. No, it's a pretty annoying job but I resign myself to it because the alternative is shoddy writing full of typos, syntax errors and dropped prepositions. It's not fun but it is worth it. Missed typos are like that big honking zit in the middle of your forehead that you know everyone is staring at but you can't do anything about.
Anybody who does a lot of proofreading is bound to have their own list of proofing tips. Here are my top ten, for what they're worth.
1) Print it out first.
Trust me on this one - you'll catch more mistakes on paper than you will on the screen. Firstly, a printed copy is easier on the eyes - not to mention a faster read. And secondly, that shift in perspective from the screen to the page helps jog your mind and helps you focus on the actual words on the page. By all means do a first sweep on your computer with the changes tracked to catch the big stuff, but when it comes to spotting missing commas, dropped articles and spelling mistakes that your spellchecker won't find, you'll want it on paper.
2) Proofread in a different room from where you usually work.
You may remember the famous scene in the movie Dead Poets Society when Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams) commands his students to stand atop their desks in order to see the world around them from a different perspective. The same idea applies to proofreading. When I'm at work I will print the document and take it to a vacant office or the cafeteria (any room without a computer screen will do), which helps give me fresh perspective on my own work. If I'm editing freelance stuff at home, I'll go to a different room in the house - usually the kitchen table.
3) Use a fine-tipped pen with a comfortable grip.
Nothing sets you off to a bad start at proofreading than having your first red mark soak through the page and slowly saturate the paper like an oil spill. A fine-tipped pen will help you avoid this problem, and if you're doing a lot of proofing you're going to want to invest in an ergonomic, easy-on-the-hand pen for the job.
4) Read every single word to yourself.
Eventually the Devil will whisper into your ear that nothing is wrong, that there's no reason not to skip a word or two here and there. Don't do it.
5) Read it backwards, sentence by sentence.
The result of this will be that none of what you've written will make sense. That's kind of the point. Reading your work backwards sentence by sentence will help divorce the words from their intended meaning, leaving you with nothing but words and grammatical underpinnings, which is exactly what you're supposed to be focusing on. When I was working as a full-time English language copy editor in Tokyo, there would be days when I would finish my work day with absolutely no recollection of anything I had read that day because I was reading solely for grammar and not for content.
6) If you listen to music, make it instrumental and non-intrusive.
Some people advise against listening to music at all while proofreading. Personally I find it helps relieve the tedium, but only if we're talking about non-intrusive ambient music. For proofreading listening, I personally like Brian Eno's Music for Airports, Ryuichi Sakamoto's solo piano music, electronic ear candy à la Boards of Canada and Autechre and anything by Bach, Erik Satie or Philip Glass. Music with lyrics is going to be distracting and suffice it to say, anything by a band with a misspelled name (i.e. Megadeth, Korn, Mötley Crüe) is a recipe for disaster.
7) Give yourself little rewards.
If you're at work, promise yourself a coffee break, 10 minutes on Facebook or a round of Angry Birds after you're done. If you're at home, promise yourself a beer after you've finished. If you're looking at an entire afternoon proofreading heavy legal or financial documents, trust me - you'll need a drink afterwards!
(Note: Do not - I repeat - do NOT try to proofread while under the influence of alcohol! By all means drink while you write, as many of history's greatest wordsmiths have been fond of doing, but trying to proofread under any condition other than stone-cold sobriety is a complete waste of time.)
8) Get all your proofing done before you input your changes.
A whole lot of back and forth will not only slow you down but it will also increase the likelihood of fresh errors. Get it all done on the page before you take it back to the computer. Treat your proofreading assignment like a crime scene - cordon it off and then comb the entire scene for evidence before you take it back to your crime lab for study.
9) For the love of God, save your work!
This should go without saying, but I've been there and (not) done that.
10) Write a blog post purporting to teach people how to do better proofreading.
Because you're really going to look like a total doofus if you purport to be an expert on proofreading and then commit conspicuous word bloopers of your own. As reader of this post, you're doubtless going to be looking extra hard for errors here. Good luck with that.
For further resources on proofreading, editing and wordsmithing in general, I highly recommend the site Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.