How to Proofread Copy – What to Look For

Last week I shared a few tricks for how to proofread copy. But what should you actually look for when proofreading? 

Proofreading is more than catching spelling errors or typos and, deadlines permitting, should be done several times to make sure your writing is 100% ready to share with the world. Ideally, you should draft your work, let it rest, then go back through and edit or rewrite it. After editing, it’s smart to step away from it again before then going back and proofreading. 

How to Proofread Copy

To catch frustrating little typos, redundancies, inconsistencies and lazy word use, read through your work looking for the following:

01. Passive voice

Using the active voice instead of the passive voice leads to stronger copy. Need a quick English grammar refresher?

Active Voice

A sentence using the active voice has a subject that acts upon its verb.

(subject + verb + object) 

  • The chef cooked pasta. 
  • The baseball player hit the ball. 
  • I ate the entire pizza.
  • Email me if you have questions.

Passive Voice

A sentence using the passive voice has a subject that is the recipient of a verb’s action.

(object + verb + subject) 

  • The pasta was cooked by the chef.
  • The ball was hit by the baseball player.
  • The entire pizza was eaten by me.
  • I can be reached by email.

You should revise sentences using the passive voice during the editing stage…but some always seem to slip through, so look again when proofreading. 

Go through and circle all your sentences using passive voice. Can you easily adjust them to be active? It’s not necessary to use the active voice for all sentences but your copy will be shorter, stronger and more clear if most of the sentences use the active voice.

02. Unnecessary words

Can you remove any filler or unnecessary words? Copy should sound natural but not be too long or wordy. When trying to sound natural, however, it’s easy to make the mistake of using modifying words that don’t add anything to the sentence or message. Look for words like:

  • very/really/totally/completely/absolutely/literally
  • just/only
  • quite/rather
  • basically/definitely/certainly/probably/actually
  • sort of/kind of/a little/pretty

You can usually delete these words without changing the sentence structure or meaning.

03. The first word of sentences, section & paragraphs

Check the first word of sections or sentences that are near each other to see if they repeat and change them if necessary. For example, when proofreading this post, I realized that I started both this section and #5 with “Make sure…” so I edited the first sentence of this section to begin differently. You typically don’t want words or phrases to repeat unless you’re making a conscious choice to start every section the same way to create a repetitive style or certain tempo in your writing.

04. Consistency

There are a variety of writing conventions, styles and spellings that are “correct” but, whichever rules you follow (like choosing to follow the APA or Chicago style guides), you want to stay consistent. For example, if you choose to spell “never-ending” with a hyphen, ALWAYS spell it with a hyphen. If you choose to add end punctuation to headings in a list, ALWAYS end each heading with punctuation.

05. Parantheses & quotation marks

Make sure parentheses and quotation marks are paired up. (Of course, you know that if you use parentheses there needs to be one at the start of the phrase and one at the end but sometimes a slip of the fingers leaves them hanging solo.)

Want to get all my tips for how to proofread copy?

These are just five of the 15 issues included in the Proofreading Checklist that’s available in my Beginner Copy Kit bundle of downloads.


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