for proofreading, copy-editing, copywriting

No proofreader? Ten survival tactics

There are times when you can’t call upon a proofreader to clean up the gremlins in a piece of writing. Maybe you are sitting a written exam. Maybe it’s nearly midnight and the work has to be in by 9 am tomorrow. You know there may still be errors which a proofreader would catch, but that’s not an option. So what can you do?

If you are sitting an exam you will probably be unable to look anything up. Horror of horrors, you may even have to write out the answers longhand which means no spellcheck. If you are using a computer, be wary of spellcheck though – it won’t pick up those classics like ‘there’ instead of ‘their’. Make sure you set spellcheck to the appropriate version of English; the default is usually US English.

Image credit: thingass / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: thingass / 123RF Stock Photo

Here are ten tips on surviving without a proofreader that might just help when you are in a tight spot:

  1. If you don’t know how to spell a word, use a different one instead. There’s nothing wrong with using smaller words (but avoid slang and street talk). For instance, instead of the frequently mis-spelled word accommodation, try rooms or apartment depending on what the sentence is saying.
  2. Words or phrases that come from foreign languages can be particularly tricky. An example: rather than agonise over the spelling and hyphenation of cul-de-sac, use dead end.
  3. Apostrophes – exam markers and editors get excited about these if they are wrong, which they nearly always are at some point. You need to weigh up leaving them out all together, or leaving them out where you are unsure. If you learn one thing beforehand, it should be that it’s means it is and not belonging to it. It’s the exception to the rule.
  4. If you don’t know how to use colons or semi colons – don’t use them. If you are unsure of the difference between a hyphen, an em dash and an en dash, use the hyphen only and make sure character spacing is consistent.
  5. Keep sentences fairly short and don’t use more than one comma per sentence, unless it is to mark the start and finish of material in parenthesis. This is a phrase which could alternatively be in brackets, and can be removed altogether without destroying the sentence. Imagine yourself reading it aloud, but remember a comma is not supposed to mark places where you breathe.

    Image credit: fasphotographic / 123RF Stock Photo
    Image credit: fasphotographic / 123RF Stock Photo
  6. Don’t use a capital letter to start a word unless it is beginning a sentence or a proper noun, i.e. the name of a particular, specific place. So – the ocean is just that, but the Pacific Ocean is a named ocean, so takes capitals.
  7. Don’t put things in quotation marks unless they are a quotation – something somebody has said which is recorded in a permanent format, which should also be attributed. Use either single or double but not both. if you want to emphasise something, use italic if you are on a computer, or underline for handwriting, but don’t go mad.
  8. If you have time to check it over, read the last sentence first; then the one before, and so on. This will reduce the skimming you will naturally do reading it conventionally, and may help you to spot errors.
  9. A really useful resource is the online Oxford dictionary. Lots of help and advice here, not just on spelling.
  10. Be careful over abbreviations and contractions. Only one has a full stop after it – the abbreviation. An abbreviation is a word which has been stopped short such as dip. for diploma. A contraction has been squashed from both ends so letters are missing from within the word not the end, such as Dr which has NO full stop. A small point (no pun intended) but may win you an extra mark.

Good luck!


By Gill Pavey

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