Freelance writers (content marketers, bloggers, ghostwriters) typically work alone and this presents a challenge when it comes to sub-editing and proofreading their own work. As most professional writers know, it’s almost impossible to edit and proofread your own work easily and with a high degree of success without some very focused self-training. So here are a few tips to help you improve editing and proofreading skills of your own work.
Before we get going, a reminder, I’m a professional content writer for a business in Brisbane. I’ve been in this role for three years and have 20 years of journalism behind me before I took on this role, including six years as a sub-editor at News Corp Australia. Just letting you know, I have real-life experience in this area. Tons of it.
Right, let’s get down to it.
If you want to build a business as a freelance writer you will need to be very good at subbing and proofreading your own work. When it lands in your commissioning editor’s inbox it needs to be as polished and publish-ready as possible. This will help you get repeat work and expand your client base.
Many writers spend a lot of time sharpening their writing skills without giving similar weight and time to improving their editing and proofreading skills.
If you’re going to be a freelance writer, blogger, content marketer or similar, you will need to be a crack writer and a top-notch sub-editor and proofreader of your own work in order to turn in high-quality content.
However, the problem is that it’s very hard, almost impossible to sub and proofread your own work.
Why it’s hard to proofread and edit your own work:
Simply, the more you work on your piece, the less of the small technical detail you see. You quickly move past the letters that make up the words and sentences and begin looking at elements such as structure, tone and the impact of the piece. If you’re working on an article, you’re thinking about getting quotes accurately transcribed, about meaning, about your research, about a million different big elements and you stop seeing the tiny elements. This problem is explained really well in this Wired article by Nick Stockton:
The reason typos get through isn’t because we’re stupid or careless, it’s because what we’re doing is actually very smart, explains psychologist Tom Stafford, who studies typos of the University of Sheffield in the UK. “When you’re writing, you’re trying to convey meaning. It’s a very high level task,” he said.
As with all high level tasks, your brain generalizes simple, component parts (like turning letters into words and words into sentences) so it can focus on more complex tasks (like combining sentences into complex ideas). “We don’t catch every detail, we’re not like computers or NSA databases,” said Stafford. “Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.”
When we’re proof reading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. The reason we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.
Another reason we struggle to catch our typos, according to Katapult, is that writing is a creative process and when we’re in a creative frame of mind, a writing phase, we don’t have the part of our brain engaged that is trained to spot typos and other technical errors.
What does a sub-editor do?
Sub-editors are expert at taking your draft material and excising the extraneous material, polishing the loose elements of the piece and tightening it, bringing the strands together so the point of the piece is more succinct and that the whole is more impactful.
A sub-editor will take a reporter’s copy and usually have a better understanding about how the story is going to fit into the newspaper. There is often a directive from higher-ups to sharpen the story, or soften it, depending on the surrounding content. There’s also the simple issue of making a 700-word story fit into a hole made for a 300-word story. The sub makes the decisions about what to cut and what to keep.
When I was a sub-editor at News Ltd (publisher of Brisbane’s The Courier-Mail and New York’s New York Post to name just two of hundreds of mastheads), I had a routine when subbing a story. I would read the story first, from start to finish without making any changes.
Then, my sub-editing routine would go through a quick second read, fixing the technical errors. This part of the process is only to fix typos, correcting punctuation issues, making all the plurals consistent, making sure the subject and the object agree, and ensuring all tenses agree, things of that nature. There’s an important reason that the typos are fixed first before moving on to issues such as structure, tone and flow and that reason is that once you get deeper into the article your eye and your brain will stop seeing those things very quickly.
The third read is when the real work would begin. This is where we would re-write the intro, bring direct quotes higher up, shorten sentences to make them more compelling or dynamic, and generally polish the work to bring out the writer’s underlying brilliance.
A fourth, fifth and even sixth read would smooth out the bumps and wrinkles in the piece, as well as be the time when I would write captions and headlines, along with any stand-firsts that might be needed (depending on the newspaper layout).
How to edit and proofread your own work
So, how does a writer bring in the rigour of a sub-editor to their work? How can a freelance writer ensure their copy is sharp and as publish-ready as we can realistically expect?
Here are a few tips to think about how you can improve your sub-editing and proofreading skills as applied to your own work:
- Put it down: This is probably the most important step, but also the step that time-poor, deadline-harried writers ignore the most often (this blogger included!). Finish your first draft and then leave it for a few hours, or even a day (deadlines permitting). Trust me, you will be amazed at how differently it reads when you come back to it 24 hours later. You’ll spot tone problems, you’ll find inconsistencies that simply weren’t visible the last time you read it. This is my number-one most important tip to improve your editing and proofreading skills.
- Print it out: There is some scientific evidence that suggests paper proofreading yields more accurate results than screen proofreading. It’s always worked for me – paper is easier to see all the dots and squiggles on the page than on the screen. Time permitting, I always print out an entire copy of the magazine I edit and give it to our proofreaders for review before it is sent to the printer. This yields much better results than when I send a soft copy.
- Change the font: The reason you can’t see your own typos is because you’ve looked at the copy so much that you’re no longer *seeing* it but rather remembering it. By changing the font, the colour of the text, the spacing, you’re tricking your brain into thinking this is something it has never seen before and is more likely to read it as fresh.
- Read it aloud: When we read aloud we use a different part of our brain and this will help you look at the words more closely with fresh eyes.
- Read it backwards: Yes, I know, sounds difficult, but read the last sentence first then the second last sentence, and so on. It’s slow, but it forces you to look at every single word as though seeing it for the first time. This tip had never occurred to me, but I read it on one of my favourite blogs and podcasts, Grammar Girl. (She’s awesome for word nerds!).
To be clear, editing and proofreading are two separate skills, distinct from one another, however I’ve bundled them together for the purposes of this post because these tips work for both processes.
My feeling is that many who are new to freelance writing dismiss the importance of proofreading. Let me assure you, as an editor who receives unsolicited and commissioned content every day – excellent proofreading skills will set you apart from your competitors. This is a worthwhile investment of your time.
If you have any questions, or any feedback, I’d love to hear it! You can connect with me on social media: