Writing Essentials

12 Proofreading and Editing Skills

How readers judge your writing is fundamentally unfair.

Brilliant ideas are undermined by weak writing to the point that they are either not understood or, despite being understood, are dismissed because of how poorly they’re being presented. That’s not fair, but it is true.

Of all professional writing skills, proofreading and editing may be the most important, in no small part because you need to have mastered so many skills to be an effective proofreader and editor.

Whatever career you may find yourself in, an important pathway to promotion is going to be proofreading and editing skills. Managers need to be able to catch mistakes before the work of subordinates is passed up to superiors or out to clients or the general public. Managers need to safeguard the appearance of competence and professionalism; proofreading and editing skills are a part of that.

There are several steps one should take to effectively proofread and edit documents, whether their own documents or the documents of others, but the most important advice is this: slow down. When done well, proofreading and editing are slow-moving, patient tasks that require focus and repetition.

If there is one major achievement you take away from this chapter, let it be this: you now need to move from reading for content to reading for form.

Reading for content is the beginning of literacy; reading for form is what capable communicators do. At this point in your education, you should now be moving beyond reading for meaning and looking at style, structure, language fundamentals (such as spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and grammar), and how the work is written. This is a major leap; now is the time to make the jump.

Seven steps for good proofreading and editing

  1. Read the document once for meaning. Make notes about “big picture” content, research, and structure before you start proofreading for capitalization, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other more detail-oriented issues.
  2. After you’ve read and edited for content, start reading again to slowly proofread for smaller issues and text edits. You may end up reading parts of the document three or more times as part of this process.
  3. Turn off features that automatically check spelling and grammar. You can’t completely trust these tools. They miss mistakes and they make mistakes. You need to be smarter and more knowledgeable than the computer. When you’ve gone over the document completely, turn the spelling and grammar checkers back on. Don’t trust them, but see if they spot anything that might need attention. If they flag an issue, make your own determination about whether the computer has made a good editing recommendation.
  4. Don’t proofread or edit your own work immediately after you’ve written a document. Set it aside for at least a day (two days is much better) so that you can look at the document with fresh eyes. You’ll catch more of your own errors this way.
  5. Go backwards. If you start with the last sentence of the document and then move backwards to the previous sentence and so on, all the way to the beginning of the document, you’ll spot more errors in spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar than you otherwise would. By breaking the flow of the meaning, you see more in the form of the writing.
  6. Read aloud. Speak the words as you read them. If something is amiss, you will often hear the problem before you see it.
  7. Edit with the track changes functions on.

Watch this video now.

As you can see from the video, there are a variety of settings and features available. For proofreading and editing, you generally want to be able to see all of your edits in line and comments off to the side. Look at the example below of an MS Word file that is being edited using the MS Word track changes functions.

Track Changes Example

Six points in the image are flagged with numbered red circles.

The first point (#1 in a red circle in the top left) points to the word “Brief,” which has been crossed out and turned red. That means an editor recommends deleting the text. However, the text is still visible as a tracked change so that everybody can see what the original version included and that an editor recommends deleting the word.

The edited text is in red, which means the edit was suggested by “Sam S.” If you look at note #5 on the right, you can see a note created by “Sam S.” and you can see a red bar before his note (reading “Cite a source”). That red bar queues the reader that his edits will be in red. If you hovered the mouse over one of his edits, a text box would pop up indicating who made the edit, as well.

Note #4 points to a comment added by “sarah.” You can see a dotted line runs from her comment to the words she’s commenting on in the middle of the paragraph. This helps the reader see exactly what she is talking about in the writing. You can see the same is true of the comment from “Sam S.” The text each person is commenting on is highlighted in their colour.

Note #3 points to a place where “sarah” has added text. It’s in her colour and it’s underlined. When text is deleted, it’s crossed out. When text is added, it’s underlined. That’s very clear for the reader and easy to understand.

As an aside, the track changes functions add the colours and underlining and strikethrough marks automatically. Neither “Sam S.” nor “sarah” actually made any colour changes. When the reader accepts and rejects these changes, they will be in the same colour as the original document. The colours are to see the edits and are not actual changes in colours in the text of the document. Once you start using these features, you’ll see how they work, but you’ll need to experiment and practice to get used to the way it all works.

Note #6 is a bit trickier; this shows that “sarah” added the word “regarding” (as it’s underlined in blue), but that “Sam S.” later deleted the word in his editing.

Finally, note #2 shows that MS Word’s grammar check thinks there is something wrong with the word “domestic.” There’s nothing wrong with that word, though! MS Word’s grammar check software is making an error. That happens, so you need to be a better editor than the software.

After all of that, the most important advice is this: learn from your mistakes and from the mistakes of others. Every proofreading and editing task is a learning opportunity and a chance to improve your own writing.

In truth, people learn a lot less from the editing notes and proofreading corrections they receive than do the editors who made those notes and corrections. Editing the work of another teaches you more than you learn from the feedback you receive. That’s what makes peer editing such a valuable learning opportunity.

Make a friend in every one of your classes and proofread each other’s work. You’ll learn so much more and you’ll improve the quality of your writing along the way.


GCFLearnFree.org. (n.d.). Word: Track changes and comments [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7tmsWN6uH0


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