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Up From Down Under November 2006 Column

November Issue 2006

Editing and Proofreading – Part 3 




You should recall (from Part 1) that a thorough edit of a completed draft is tackled on “two levels:


  • Macro level. The big picture.
  • Micro level. The itty-bitty parts.

“The term editing may be used to encompass the whole process or, more specifically, applied to the macro level. Proofreading is the final surface polish performed once the big things have been set in concrete.”


Strange, but some writers seem to think proofreading is too tedious and below them. “Leave the spelling, grammar and punctuation to the peasants who can’t write creatively,” we hear them preaching. It’s sad, but perhaps they’re making noise to distract us from the fact they can’t spell, write grammatically or punctuate.


Is the “itty-bitty” of “nitty-gritty” importance?




Michael Legat, writer, editor, and publisher observed:


“You will be wrong if you think that mistakes in your spelling, punctuation and grammar will be corrected by a copy editor. Copy editors are not used as widely as in the past. You should learn to correct your own work.”1



Proofreading Tools


The two major steps in Proofreading involve important tools available to you. First, your computer’s word processor has built-in error detection. Second, your own senses of sight and hearing become keener when they work together.


STEP ONE: Use your computer for on-screen proofreading.


Your word processor has sub-programs you can use to detect and highlight errors or automatically correct your work: in Microsoft Word, go to Tools, Options, Spelling & Grammar. Some writers prefer to have these running as they type; others may switch them on specifically for editing. The choice is yours.


You should consider using the capacity to check spelling, grammar, punctuation, doubled words, passive voice, etc. However, these tools are not foolproof – for example, see “Spelling errors” below.


STEP TWO: Vocalise your story or essay - read it aloud. Use two of your senses together – sight and hearing. A printout is best for this step. 


There are three variations. First, read your story straight through. This practice often reveals poor sentence structure, superfluous words and phrases, and repetitions (words you repeat in close proximity or habitually throughout your work).


The second variation is to mask the work. Leave visible only the line you’re reading. This technique helps avoid distractions and keeps your attention on one line.


Third, try reading the story or essay backward, word-by-word – that’ll make you concentrate!


Proofreading for SPAG (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar)


Whether you use on-screen checking or a printout, there are a variety of things to look for.


  1. Spelling errors. Okay you’ve run spell check, so now’s the time to check for the tricky words and typos it missed. For example, your spelling may be wrong but the computer doesn’t always know that – you could type “bare” when you mean “bear” or “pour” instead of “poor” or “kin” when you mean “kind” or “litter” instead of “letter” or … . Got the idea?

“Some words that can cause trouble are listed below.

         their (possessive form of they)

         there (in that place)

         they’re (contraction of they are)

         accept (a verb, meaning to receive or to admit to a group)

         except (usually a preposition, meaning but or only)

         who’s (contraction of who is or who has)

         whose (possessive form of who)

         its (possessive form of it)

         it’s (contraction of it is or it has)

         your (possessive form of you)

         you’re (contraction of you are)

         affect (usually a verb, meaning to influence)

         effect (usually a noun, meaning result)

         than (used in comparison)

         then (refers to a time in the past)

         were (form of the verb to be)

         we’re (contraction of we are)

         where (related to location or place)” 2


Did you notice the humble apostrophe featured in the above list? Its omission is a frequent cause of spelling errors. – and not just with those mentioned. As well as contractions, apostrophes can indicate possession.

To verify possessive case:

“1. Skim your paper, stopping only at those words which end in "s."
 2. See whether or not each "s" word needs an apostrophe. If an apostrophe is needed, you will be able to invert the word order and say "of" or "of the":

    • Mary's hat
    • the hat of Mary”3

    2.   Punctuation. The comma is the main recalcitrant in the punctuation gang. If unsure of how to keep it under it control, consult a grammar text or read the June 2005 issue of The Muse Marquee. Otherwise, consider these questions:

“Have you ended every sentence with a period, question mark, or exclamation point?

Are your thoughts within sentences broken up correctly by commas for easier understanding?

Have you broken up series with commas?

Have you used a period after abbreviations?”4*


  1. Grammar and sentence structure. The things to look for here, include:

    • subject/verb agreement (check tense and number).
    • pronoun agreement (check gender and number).
    • active/passive voice (see earlier chapter).
    • repetition (check for close or frequent repetitions of words/phrases).
    • superfluity (check for redundant words/phrases).
    • dangling modifiers (avoid ambiguity by checking that words/phrases/clauses clearly connect to the word they modify).
    • capitalisation (if unsure, consult ).
    • fragmentary and run-on sentences (check that all sentences are complete and make sense).
    • sentence length (vary length around the accepted average of 22 words).


  1. When in doubt, check! Whether it’s spelling, punctuation or grammar, never hesitate to resort to a dictionary, thesaurus, grammar text or other authority. By taking the time and effort to verify something, you reinforce it within your mind. It’s called research!


Be Systematic


Develop a systematic approach. Use the above advice and suggestions to develop your own organised approach to editing and proofreading. It should be routine to use the computer tools and then print a copy for closer scrutiny.


Know you own typical errors.


Becoming aware of your own typical errors will simplify your system. Two things will happen. First, the more conscious you are of habitual errors the more likely you are to avoid them. Second, if you still make the same errors, you can find them quicker. Duh!


Lastly, Call a Friend


Remember, in Part 1, you were advised to seek a friend’s help. Don’t forget that another head, two extra eyes, and two additional ears, will be useful throughout the entire process of editing and proofreading.



* Australian English does not require periods with abbreviations.



References Cited


  1. and


Other Reference Material Sighted


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