It happens to the best of us. We proofread an email or a document before we send it or submit it, and sure enough, after we send it or submit it, we find a typo (or two). But it is too late. Even the most diligent among us likely will not catch every mistake because it is difficult to be a critical reader of our own work. We frequently do not see our own work objectively. But, because lawyers are professional writers, because our job is to help others avoid litigation and confusion rather than create it, and because we want to maintain the highest professional reputation, it is necessary for us to spend the time to proofread. And, depending on the document, we usually have to do it more than once.
Here are five suggestions for proofreading your own work.
- Take Time Away From the Document First. Do not proofread a document immediately after writing it. If you have the time, put the document away for a few hours or days and then reread it. You will be amazed at how many errors you catch after a break -- even a short one.
- Read the Document Out Loud. When you read a document out loud, you are forced to read the words that are actually written on the page, not the ones that you think are written on the page, or that are in your head.
- Read the Document Out of Order. Sometimes you can trick yourself into being an objective reader of your own work by reading it out of order. If you are proofreading a memorandum or brief that has various sections divided by headings and sub-headings, start by proofreading one of the middle sections first. Then proofread the introduction, then the conclusion, then another middle section, etc.
- Read Sentences Backwards. When you read a sentence normally, your eyes skim the words. But, when you read a sentence backwards, your eyes look at each word individually. If you read a sentence backwards, and come across the word “there,” for example, then you can look at the word in the context of the sentence and make sure that you really meant “there” and not “their” or “they’re.” Combine this technique with number 2, reading out loud, and you are certain to catch most errors in the document.
- Do Not Rely Upon Spell-Check. Spell check is not more reliable than you are. It will not correct “form,” when you meant “from,” or “statue,” when you meant “statute,” or “to,” when you meant “too.” Use it in addition to the other four suggestions listed above.