Monday, March 8, 2010

Never Miss a Typo Again

Proofreading is one of those necessary evils of writing. If we expect any self-respecting reader to take our stories seriously, we have to make sure we’ve presented them as flawlessly as possible—and that means avoiding typos at all costs. Misspelled words, oft-repeated words, missing words, incorrect grammar, misplaced punctuation—all these things are the mark of unprofessionalism. And yet, they’re also mistakes that all writers struggle with, in large part because we’re often blind to our own stories. We read what we think we’ve written, rather than the glaring error we actually typed.

So what’s a writer to do? Following are five tips for catching even the most camouflaged of typos.

1. Distance yourself.

If at all possible, put some time between you and your manuscript. If you’re able to gain a little objective distance, you’ll be more likely to read with fresh eyes and less likely to read things that aren’t there.

2. Read aloud.

Reading aloud does wonders, not only for catching typos, but for helping you gain a better sense of the rhythm of your words. For instance, when you start reading your dialogue aloud, you’ll be able to recognize when the cadence is off.

3. Read to someone else.

Reading aloud to someone else takes our proofreading to a new level by giving us a hyperawareness of our words. Because we begin to hear what we’ve written through our audience’s ears, it gives us a fresh perspective. The bloopers we suddenly become aware of as a result can be astounding.

4. Have your computer read to you.

Adobe Reader (standard on most computers) features a “read aloud” tool that verbalizes your work, so you can hear it while you read along. You can purchase more sophisticated voices in other programs, but this freebie (I call the voice “Howie”) works perfectly for me. After converting your manuscript to a pdf, open it in Adobe Reader, click the View tab in the toolbar. Select Read Out Loud at the bottom of the tab, then Activate Read Out Loud, then choose whether you want to Read This Page Only or Read To End of Document.

5. Dot each word.

Print a hard copy of your manuscript and arm yourself with a highlighter. As you read, place a dot under each word. This will force you to acknowledge each word on the page and keep you from reading words that aren’t there or skipping typos that are present.

Using these five tips—or any combination thereof—will keep your eyes and your mind open for typos, no matter how many times you’ve already read your story. If you have any typo-finding tricks of your own to share, please feel free to leave us a comment. Happy typo hunting!

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  1. Great advice here, Katie. I also recommend having critique partners read over the manuscript.

  2. I like the dot advice! I love reading aloud to my crit group, even though it's nerve wracking. I find I change words or the flow of the sentence, meaning the punctuation has to change. Thanks for the great tips!


  3. Excellent tips, Katie! I've found that reading aloud to my writing group is helpful. Doing so points out typos, things that just don't sound right, and things that I might have worded differently had I dictated instead of typing them.

    When I finished my first (as yet unpublished) novel, I was blessed to have several people volunteer to edit. My cousin was excellent at catching the dozen or so things that had slipped past my eyes. She used to proofread technical publications for a federal government agency and so was well practiced in the quest for bloopers.

    Best of all, she told me the story engaged her so much that she forgot she was supposed to be editing and had to go back to look for errors. I couldn't have asked for better validation than that.

  4. I especially like the suggestions for using Adobe Reader's voice feature and the "dot each word" idea.

    With the Adobe Reader thing, do you have problems with very large PDF files? Should I save by chapters rather than the whole file? (it's pretty large)

  5. I didn't know that about Adobe Reader. Thanks for the info, Katie!

    My favorite typo-hunting technique is still to let someone else do it for me--particularly when I'm in a rush. With the recent piece I prepared for the Genesis contest, each person who read it for me found one typo that none of the others saw. How's that for effectiveness?!

  6. The Adobe reader idea is great! Thanks!

    One think I learned from an editor is to read backwards (probably best one page at a time) to catch typos and misspelled words. This way, your mind can't trick you into seeing what's not there.

  7. @Lynnette: I'd be lost without the fresh eyes of my crit partners - esp. when it comes to identifying overused words.

    @Brittany: I find reading aloud nerve-wracking too. And I actually hate *hearing* my work read aloud. It's something I've had to overcome.

    @Traci: Whenever a proofreader forgets to proofread that's always the best compliment possible!

    @Lyn: I've never had problem with large pdfs. However, I create my pdfs from Pagemaker files, rather from Word, so I'm not sure if that makes a difference.

    @Linda: As important as it is for us to hunt our own typos, I agree that we'll never be as effective as truly objective eyes.

    @Kathanink: I've heard of the reading backwards method before, but I've yet to collect the patience to give it a try myself.

  8. I think it's very hard for people to learn to spot mistakes that they would normally gloss over. I've worked in publishing for more than 20 years and am used to spotting typos and missing words, so my brain is trained to do it (I'm one of those annoying people who will find the mistakes in a page someone thought was perfect). The Adobe Reader idea gets around this - really clever.

  9. A large part of becoming a successful proofreader is simply learning the rules. If we aren't aware of a grammar mistake, we can hardly correct it.

  10. I read out loud to the dog first. So I have an audience, but it's an adoring one. :) That gets me through a first pass at polishing so that I can then read to some one else.

    The dot technique sounds intriguing.

    I always have someone else proofread a close-to-final copy. I think it's impossible to find every typo in your own work.

    As usual, an informative post. Thank you!

  11. The dog - or the cat - is a pretty good audience! Nothing like adoration to boost your confidence. :)

  12. Love the Adobe Reader idea! I've shared it with the writing staff at the magazine I work for too. I've always preferred the read aloud tool, but in a shared office space, I feel like I'm disturbing others when I do. With this, I can put the headset on and read along, make notes as I go and get it fixed before my senior editor gets a crack at it!

    Thank-you! This so blessed my work day today!!!

  13. I always use headphones too. I get fidgety at the thought that random people might walk by and hear "Howie" reading my words. :p

  14. I recently finished proof-reading the page proofs on a book I have read ten times in the past year. I've lost count of how many edits it's been through. There were still a few typos. I read the book backwards. Read the words instead of the story. That helped. I love your ideas here.

  15. One of my biggest frustrations is thinking I have something perfect, hitting the "send" button, then seeing a whoppin' blooper flashing like a neon beer sign. I sent out a query letter to an agent one time and realized after I sent it that the address line said Mr. XYZ, and the salutation said, "Dear Mr. ABC."


  16. @kat: Isn't it insane how typos slip through even after you've read the darn thing a million times?

    @Linda: The surest way of finding typos is sending the manuscript off. Maybe I should have pointed that out as a tip! :p

  17. Thank you for the tips. The only problem I have with dotting each word is that it tends to make my monitor look all messy.

  18. I had no idea that Adobe Reader could do that. Thanks so much for the tip! I am definitely going to try this.

  19. I referenced this page on a wiki I'm creating as a teaching tool for myself and as an assignment for a grad class I'm taking in workplace writing. Thanks for the great tips:

  20. @Kirsten: It's a handy feature, isn't it?

    @Jeannie: Neat site! Thanks so much for linking to us.