Proof-reading Tips

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What is the best way for me to check over my text?

Whether it’s a Bachelor thesis, a press communication or a publicity release — as a copyeditor and proof-reader, Evgenij Unker will give you tips on how to correct your texts yourself.

On the computer or on paper?

If you’re planning to make substantial revisions to the text, it’s only sensible to make these on the computer. Word processing now enables you to move segments of text about, delete sections or add passages with ease. On the computer, you’ll have no trouble in comparing two versions of the text, discarding your changes at any time.

If, however, you wish to proof-read your text down to the last spelling or typing mistake, printing it out is a better alternative. Reading on paper does not tire your eyes out as fast as looking at the computer screen. You will therefore discover many more errors.

Hints on how to proof-read more effectively

  • Change your view of the text. When you’ve been working too long on a text, you become to some extent blind to the details. Trick your eyes into taking a fresh look by, for example, switching the font. Experimenting with the font size and the layout in general can also achieve the desired effect. Printing the text out can work wonders in distancing you from it.

  • Be wary of playing about with the font colour. Black script on a white background remains as always easiest on the eye. If you change the colour, particularly in the case of longer texts, you risk tiring too quickly, spotting fewer mistakes and defeating your aim.

  • Read slowly. Normally, we don’t look at each letter individually as we read — we take in not just parts of words, but whole words or sentences at a time. It’s all too easy to miss little typing errors such as having letters the wrong way round. Take care to read more slowly, really noticing each individual word.

  • Read aloud. Reading out loud does more than just slow you down — it also widens your cognitive skills by bringing another sensory organ into play, thus increasing your awareness. While you’re listening to your text, you'll also find you can pick out more quickly any parts that sound poorly phrased or stilted.

  • Read it backwards. You can take a page or a paragraph at a time and read it backwards, word by word. This will make you focus above all on the actual letters, rather than being distracted by the content, which is so familiar to you.

Time Management

  • Make sure you allow enough time for proof-reading. Simply to read a Bachelor thesis or a brochure that is 50 A4 pages long may require as much as a full working day. If you wish to read particularly thoroughly, making changes, and possibly still having to look up spellings, you can easily take two to three days over this.

  • It’s even better if you don’t start proof-reading your text straight after you've finishing drafting it. Experience tells us that if you start too soon, what you see is what you intended to put, rather than what you actually wrote. Leave the text aside for at least a day two or three days would be ideal.

  • Depending on how many mistakes you find and how stringent you need to be, it may make sense to check the text twice or even three times — taking breaks in between. It’s a lengthy business!

Take plenty of breaks

Even a professional proof-reader can’t spend eight hours at a stretch correcting work. Every 30 to 60 minutes, you should take a break of between 5 and 15 minutes. You can close your eyes, or look at objects in the distance, gazing out of the window for example. Your eyes will then recover faster. Relaxation exercises for your eyes and your body will also help you work more productively.

Proof-reading Aids

Nowadays, a wider range of resources is available to help in the proof-reading of German-language texts:

  • Automatic spellcheckers. Computers are now capable of detecting the most glaring typing and spelling errors quite effectively, so it’s a good idea to run an automatic spellcheck before carrying out your final proof-reading by hand. You should not, however, rely solely on your laptop — the current software doesn’t pick up on everything.

  • Classic works of reference. The best help is still provided by classic dictionaries such as Wahrig and Duden for German, and for English, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Merriam-Webster. Of course, you can also consult other language and style guides for reference or as a source of inspiration. Universities, for instance in the United Kingdom and the USA, frequently produce their own style manuals for thesis writing, available free to consult online, with comprehensive guidelines, especially on referencing. You may similarly access widely recommended manuals such as the MHRA, Harvard, APA or Oxford style guides. There are, however, variations in the citation style, and so it is important to check which is preferred in your case and most appropriate for your particular discipline.

  • The official rules. The ‘official rulebook’, on which all German dictionaries and reference books are based, is the authoritative work used for education in schools and all state institutions. It never does any harm to have a look at it. You can download the official rules from the website for advice on German orthography.

  • Standard proof-reading marks according to ISO 5776 (German: DIN 16511). To help you keep track of your own corrections, and certainly when working with others on a text, you will find the standardised proof-reading symbols indispensable. It only takes twenty minutes to learn the key ones. Spelling dictionaries are a good place to start looking for these.

  • Online resources. Of course, these days almost all your questions about language and spelling can be found somewhere on the Internet. Take care though: there is a great deal of false information out there, especially if you look on Question and Answer sites or in forums. For German, useful places to look include the portals for duden.de, korrekturen.de or canoo.net.

  • Reading — the best tip of all. Especially if you have a good visual memory, you will greatly benefit from reading carefully copyedited texts. Reading is not just fun, it substantially raises your use of language. With time, stylistic ‘bloomers’ and bad typing errors will start to leap out at you off the page.

Emergency Assistance

If time or patience are running out for you, you can also ask a friend, a relative or a colleague to look over your text for you. Clearly you can return the favour later. It is particularly worth considering consulting a copyeditor or a proof-reader if you know you need the work to be of the highest quality, or if the correcting has to be done within a short space of time.

Evgenij Unker

7 May 2013

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