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Tools That Help or Hinder Proofreading

Let's turn now to tools that can assist you in accurate proofreading or make things harder for you. The first of these is, well, I don't know the official term, but I call them squiggles – the red wavy underlining that shows up in Microsoft Word and some email writing programs when there's a word that its built-in dictionary doesn't recognize or when there's the same word repeated. It's an alert that there may be a typo there.

On the one hand, you want to pay attention to the squiggles because they can make you aware of something that needs to be corrected. On the other hand, the squiggles can show up repeatedly for something that is perfectly correct, like someone's somewhat unusual last name or an unusual yet correct word choice. In addition, you can have a terrible typo that Word doesn't alert you about with squiggles because it's a real word – the wrong one, but a word that's in the program or app's dictionary. You may also have intended to double up a word, as in "He told me that that person was the robber."

For me, this illustrates the paradox involved in proper proofreading. On the one hand, it is a mechanical process in the sense that you are checking to make sure that each component is correct and in its intended place, and yet simultaneously, you need to use your intelligence to judge that what might appear to be wrong is right and that what appears to be right is wrong.

Do look at the squiggles, but you have to decide which are validly alerting you to a mistake and which are mistaken warnings. As I mentioned in the course introduction, I have worked as a writing coach or editor with hundreds of writers, and I am shocked at how often someone sends me a manuscript to give them feedback on, and when I open the document, there are red squiggles all over the place. Usually, this tells me that they ignored the squiggles while writing and did not take the trouble to proofread before sending that document to me. That's a bad habit to get into, not to mention rude.

By the way, if you do not see the red wavy squiggles in Microsoft Word, you can turn them on in the Spelling and Grammar tab under Tools then Options. Click the "Check spelling as you type" box, and the squiggles will show up. Do leave that setting on as the default.

In the latest version of Word, you can also initiate a spell-check round by going to the Review tab and clicking on Spelling or Spelling and Grammar. This tool is especially helpful to use if you've just finished a chunk of writing, like a chapter, and want to check it before going on, but keep in mind that it will miss many errors and flag words that are not mistakes.

Now, what about grammar check programs? As I just mentioned, there is a grammar checker built into Microsoft Word. There are also websites where you can plug in your text and run a free grammar check and apps that you can install into your browser or smartphone to do the same. Most of the time, these will flag an apparent error, name the mistake, suggest a fix and then leave it to you to accept or ignore the correction. The most respected of these websites and apps is Grammarly, and it claims to catch more than 150 kinds of flubs in its free version, including mistakes in capitalization, punctuation, pronouns, subject/verb agreement, etc.

On the one hand, these programs do help by flagging trouble spots that you might have overlooked. But on the other hand, it might take a long time for you to consider all the potential errors the tool brings up and decide one by one whether or not it truly is a mistake and whether to accept the suggested correction. My colleague Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, a business writing trainer, ran various grammar checkers through their paces and created a very long list of kinds of issues that they flag that are actually not grammar mistakes at all. Remember, too, that many kinds of actual mistakes will not get flagged.

If you do perform a computerized grammar check as part of a proofreading routine, have a couple of reference works or websites handy, so you can look up instances where you're not sure whether something is a mistake or not. When in doubt, check. With all my writing and editing experience, I still look things up fairly often, especially whether something is one word or two and whether or not there should be a hyphen or just a compound word.

Now there's a function you might be tempted to use in Word or your email program called Autocorrect. When this is turned on, in the flick of an eye, it will automatically change what it thinks is a mistake to what it thinks is correct. This is really dangerous – so dangerous I would say you should never trust it. A colleague of mine told me she had a boss named Mr. Prono, and her word processing program changed Mr. Prono in an important document to Mr. Porno. Hah! Not good at all.

To control Autocorrect, in the latest version of Word, go to the File menu, then choose Options, then Proofing, then AutoCorrect Options, and from there, the most dangerous option to check is the one called "automatically use suggestions from spelling checker." This will slyly, without your even noticing it, change your spelling to what it's been programmed to believe is correct, which can be quite wrong. Definitely leave that box unchecked.

My new cell phone autocorrects in the worst way, and I haven't yet figured out how to stop it. In text messages, it often changes my commas to periods the millisecond I type them and makes complete nonsense out of ordinary words I am trying to type on its tiny virtual keyboard. For sure, I'm not the only one with this problem. Among the cases I found looking this up on the Internet: changing "meth addict" to "method addict"; changing "stuck on the tollway" to "stuck on the toilet"; changing "I look forward to speaking with you" to "I look forward to sleeping with you"; and – my favorite – someone messaged their significant other to pick up some Hunan Beef at their local Chinese restaurant, and the phone changed it to "Human Beef." It is possible to disable Autocorrect, and you can find instructions online for your particular phone.

My cell phone also autosuggests, which means as I type, it guesses what I'm intending to say and provides options for me to click on, which sometimes feels like it's an amazing mind reader and saves me time. But I remember one time when autosuggest, also known as autocomplete, literally sent me seriously out of my way. I was driving a rented car in Israel and using a GPS program to get to the Leonardo Hotel in Ashkelon. So I typed in "Leonardo Hotel Ash," and the program recognized where I was trying to go. Great! When I was driving, though, the route seemed to take me to the far outskirts of Ashkelon and then kept on going. And going. And going. How could that be? I was baffled. It turned out the GPS took me to the Leonardo Hotel in Ashdod, an entirely different city 25 kilometers away. See, I'd typed in A-S-H, and the program autocompleted it to Ashdod instead of Ashkelon, and the display was such that the mistake was hidden, off the end of the screen.

Search and replace is another tool that seems like it can be a lifesaver during proofreading. Let's suppose that you wrote an opinion piece about something a guy named Schumacher proposed. After you finished your draft, you discovered that you'd written "Shumacher" (S-H-U) instead of "Schumacher" (S-C-H-U). You go to your handy-dandy "find and replace" function, instruct it to make the change for you, click "replace all," and you're done. Success!

However, sometimes clicking "replace all" results in a situation like that can give you a holy mess. For instance – true story – a publisher decided to Canadianize a book originally published in the US. Canada uses British spellings, and they have a different political system. So the publisher used "replace all" to change "meter" to "metre" and "state" to "province." What happened, though, is that these commands also changed the "meter" within the word "cemetery" to "cemetrey" and the "state" within "understated" to "underprovinced." Along with many other such mistaken corrections. The remedy? Instead of any global find and replace, select the option to review the proposed replacements one instance at a time, and do really look at what's being changed instead of clicking yes, yes, yes, yes while you're half asleep.

So far, I haven't said anything about how to input corrections. If you're proofreading on screen, you may want to or need to keep track of changes that were made. For example, if you are proofreading something someone else wrote, you may need to return the text showing clearly the changes that you made, so they can review them for accuracy. In that case, you turn on what's called tracking – a function called "track changes." In the latest version of Word, it's on the review menu. It shows everything that was crossed out or added. After the other person checks over the changes, they can click "Accept all" and whooh! – the changes instantly go into effect, and the markings disappear.

If you are proofreading on a printout, you may want to learn the standard markup signs and symbols. These are universally understood and completely unambiguous in the printing and publishing worlds. Just Google "proofreading marks," and you'll find dozens of handouts on this to choose from that you can print out and keep on your desk for reference. For best visibility, use a blue or red pen to mark up your corrections on paper.

Let me explain two more tools that may come into play in the proofreading process: a style guide and a style sheet. Now you may think that there's a binary right/wrong when it comes to text, and your job in proofreading is to make sure everything comes out right and as intended. Actually, though, there is a huge in-between area where more than one way is correct. For example, is it F.B.I. or FBI with no periods? M.I.T. or MIT? Both are correct. However, any given document should be consistent within itself, so that it doesn't have FBI with no periods in a couple of places and MIT with periods elsewhere. Other style points: Does the word "email" have a hyphen or not? Do you put book titles in italics or in quotation marks? Do you always write numbers as numerals or sometimes write numbers as words? A style guide provides a compilation of a set of standard choices on such options, so that someone who follows a certain style guide will end up with consistent choices not only with themselves but with everyone else who follows that style guide.

Some publications and companies have created their own style guides, but it's more common to follow a standard one. The main ones used in the USA are the Chicago Manual of Style, used throughout book publishing, and the AP Stylebook, used for newspapers, magazines, and many blogs or online publications. If you're in Canada, there's the Canadian Press Stylebook, which is a counterpart of the AP Stylebook. In addition, the Canadian, British and Australian governments provide style guides online tailored specifically for their country.

A style sheet, on the other hand, is something you may want to compile as you proofread to help you ensure that that very document is consistent with itself. In a more formal setup, a copy editor may have created a style sheet and given it to you to use during proofreading. Basically, a style sheet is something created on the fly to keep track of those gray-area, you-get-to-choose options involving punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and so on, so those elements are consistent in a document.

To construct a style sheet, simply take a blank sheet of paper and draw lines to divide it into sixteen boxes. Download the sample style sheet in the resources for this lesson to see how it works. Write down the letters of the alphabet in the first 10 boxes – AB, CD, EFG, and so on – then, in the remaining boxes, write spelling, punctuation, names, dates and times, numbers, and miscellaneous.

Then as you proofread, you copy down the first instance of any names or unusual words in the box corresponding to the first letter of that word and the styling decisions you see in the corresponding boxes. If you write down "Tad Smith," and later in that document, you find "Ted Smith," your style sheet indicates that one of those is probably a mistake. You'll need to check that with the author, if the author wasn't you. If you see dates written down in the format of July 22, 1979, you note that down on the style sheet, and later when you see 4 August 1981, the style sheet tells you to change that to the format of July 22, 1979.

And let's turn now to the trouble spots, the multitude of special challenges you need to know about to hack proofreading like a pro.

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Written by

Marcia Yudkin