Skip to content

The Golden Rules of Proofreading (well… some of them)

  • by

Proofreading can be a tedious and sometimes painful process. It’s super difficult to revisit a piece of writing that you’ve already labored over only to scrutinize it again. Plus, let’s be honest, grammar can be boring. However, proofreading is an essential part of the editing process. It shows an extra level of care and dedication on your part and makes the piece that much more polished. At first glance, it feels like proofreading requires a crazy amount of knowledge about grammar and punctuation. Luckily, that’s not always the case. Proofreading can be a simple process. The trick is focusing on the readability and smoothness of your piece. Keeping these few proofreading golden rules in mind will make your proofreading experience a breeze.


  1. Never leave a sentence hanging.

While some stylistic liberties are always acceptable, it is a general rule of thumb that what is started must be ended. Oftentimes, writers will mistake an unfinished phrase for an entire sentence. For instance, you may want to ask your reader a question, such as “How do you plan to get that done?”, and then answer it with, “With will power and determination”. While it sounds correct, “with will power and determination” is not a complete sentence. What are the elements of a full sentence? Every complete sentence needs a subject, an object, a verb, and a complete thought. Let’s take the example of “I love being outside”. In this instance, “I” would be the subject, since you are the one committing the action. The object would be “outside”, as it is the thing you are committing the action on. This leaves “love” to be the verb being committed, forming the complete thought. Circling back to our previous example, “With will power and determination”,  we can see that there are only objects, no subject or verb. This is the difference between a complete sentence and a fragment. Knowing this makes it a lot easier to ensure that you are not leaving any thoughts unfinished and that your reader can make sense of each sentence individually.


2. If you think a sentence is too long…it probably is.

At first glance, writing a long and complicated sentence can feel like an achievement. It makes you feel smart and supposedly makes you look smart as well. However, if a sentence is too long it can become convoluted and obscure your overall point. Long sentences don’t make you look smarter. Clearer sentences with concise points are what truly make you look intelligent, as they show the reader that you are willing to sacrifice a long sentence for a well written one. Generally speaking, a sentence is meant to be written so that it can be spoken in a single breath, with commas and other punctuation acting as breath marks. So, try it out yourself. Read your piece out loud and see if you can get through each sentence in one or two breaths. If you find yourself with a sentence that is too much of a mouthful, try deconstructing it a bit. Decide what you are trying to convey in that particular sentence. If there’s a more concise way to convey it, cut it short. If you feel like each word is necessary to get the message across, try splitting it up into more than one sentence. If that feels like too much, try adding some punctuation to give the reader some designated pauses. Remember that it is more impressive to be clear and concise than it is to be long and drawn out.


3. When in doubt, take it out.

So, remember when we talked about making sentences more concise? That applies on a larger scale too. We know how tricky it is to contain yourself when it comes to writing about something you love. However, sometimes less is more. So, how do you go about deciding what is necessary and what is not? Ultimately it is up to you. You are the only one who can decide what is necessary to your message. However, being a little objective never hurt anyone. One helpful exercise is to try summarizing the key points of each paragraph with one sentence. Then, reevaluate all the sentences in your paragraph based on that summary. Are they all contributing to your key points? Are they just there to reiterate? Are they distracting from the point? There are many purposes that a sentence can serve. They can help create a tone, build ethos or pathos, or add humor and personality. All of these things are important, but not more important than conveying the point. So, limit yourself a little. Cut things out that are being redundant or distracting from the main point. Use the exposition of your piece to build a relationship with the audience and let the body of your piece do the informational work. 


4. Commas are your friends until they’re not.

Commas can be very useful tools when constructing sentences. They tell the reader how to read and interpret a sentence. They create a rhythm and a flow to the piece. They can also be pretty annoying if used too often and without a specific purpose. They can clog up a sentence and jumble the flow of a paragraph. Oftentimes, writers will mistake commas for semicolons and use them to string together two independent sentences, creating a run-on sentence. When proofreading a piece for punctuation, it can feel very technical. However, thinking about punctuation as a tool for rhythm and not a technicality can make it much easier to navigate. Commas are your friend, but not your best friend. Use them sparingly. Instead of using them to try to glue two sentences together that do not need to be together in the first place, try using them to direct your reader’s rhythm and tell them when to breathe when reading the sentence. Thinking about punctuation as a director of sound and not a director of adhesion is the best way to navigate proofreading.


5. Have a friend look it over.

While you are more than capable of proofreading your own work, sometimes having a fresh perspective to look it over is more beneficial. When spending a long period of time on a piece, it is easy to develop tunnel vision and start becoming blind to the details. It can also become easy to experience fatigue by the end of the writing process. An outside editor will give your piece a new pair of eyes to catch details that you might have missed and breathe new energy into the process. A trusted friend is always a good starting place. They can offer honest feedback without hurting your morale. However, sometimes a piece needs a little extra love. In that case, hiring an outside editor from an editing company or service might be your best option. A hired editor is a completely unbiased perspective that is specially trained to aid with the more technical aspects of editing and proofreading. On top of that, they are often inexpensive and end up saving you a lot of money and time in the long run. If proofreading makes your stomach drop, consider pursuing an outside editing company to get the job done for you. 


Of course, when it comes down to it, you are the most knowledgeable person about your own work. No one can judge your work more perfectly than you. However, when it comes to an objective proofread, a little guidance never hurts. So, keep these tips and rules in mind when embarking on the editing stage of your project. Hopefully, they will make the experience a lot less stressful and, ultimately, more fulfilling.