Whether you write a little or a lot, you should take a moment to look for errors before sending that email or submitting that report or presentation. But should you proofread on paper or on your computer? We asked professionals for their top proofreading tips, and they recommended proofreading on paper.
Why? Because proofreading on paper delivers better results.
Tom Stafford, who studies typos (short for typographical errors) at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, explained why it can be so difficult to spot errors when proofing onscreen.
“We don’t catch every detail; we’re not like computers or NSA databases,” he said in an interview with WIRED magazine. “Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.”
In other words, because we know what we meant to write, our brains tend to fill in the correct word or spelling even when there is a mistake. Editing functions in popular word processing applications can help flag spelling errors, but they don’t always find words that have been used incorrectly. When we review material onscreen, we often miss those errors simply because our brains autocorrect them.
That’s why virtually any list of proofreading tips will include the suggestion to review a hard copy instead of proofreading on a computer screen. Changing the format of the content from digital to print makes it less familiar, which can cause your brain to be more alert to errors.
The professionals we spoke with tend to do a combination of onscreen and paper proofreading, depending on the project. But they agree that proofreading on paper leads to better results.
Emily-Sarah Lineback, a freelance editor based in North Carolina, says, “For me, proofing on paper is always better, and I catch more. I don’t always proof by printing, but whenever it’s a more lasting project, I put it on paper.”
Here are six reasons “print it out” is among professionals’ top proofreading tips.
1. Print helps you catch more errors.
Jessica Maile, a production editor at Dublin Gazette Group in Dublin, Ireland, relies on print for quality control. “I’m the last to see news pages before they go to print, and I prefer hard copies,” she says. “Something just clicks in my head that this tangible copy is the final final copy, and I catch way more problems than when editing onscreen.”
2. Print is best for important or complex projects.
When it comes to projects that have a long shelf life, are complex or are important, most professionals prefer to proofread on paper.
“If it’s a typical letter, I might proofread on the computer. But if it’s a policy or detailed document, I print and proofread,” says Pamela Landis, who works for an insurance company in Illinois.
Kenneth Lee, a playwright based in Missouri, also proofreads important projects in print. “I never send something to a publisher until I have read the document out loud from a printed copy and had someone I trust look at it with a fresh eye,” he says. “Normally, I will find something that I missed onscreen.”
3. Print helps you focus more on the content.
Miki McKee Koelsch, a parks and recreation director for a St. Louis suburb, always prints a copy of her department’s annual activity guide to do a final review before sending it to the printer. “I find I have a greater attention span with the printed document as opposed to proofreading on screen,” she says.
Koelsch’s point is backed up by research. The Paper and Packaging Board’s Third Annual Back to School Report found that 94 percent of study participants concentrate better when reading printed copy versus reading onscreen.
4. Print can be easier to read.
For some people, reading on an electronic device can be tiresome. “Computers give me a headache,” says Sandy Redford, a dog trainer and stray-rescue worker in St. Louis. “I read better with a hard copy, especially when I use a pen as a pointer. That helps me find mistakes more easily.”
April Kuras, an information systems manager in Illinois, likes to take a break from the computer to rest her eyes. “I want to not look at my computer monitor for a bit, so sometimes I’ll print my project and mark it up with an old-fashioned red pen while eating my lunch,” she says.
5. Print is useful for sharing feedback.
Alissa Murray, a middle school science teacher in Missouri, prefers to provide feedback to students on paper. “It’s easier to write notes in the margins, and I’m less likely to miss things if I’m reading a paper copy.”
Carrie Sutherland, a Missouri homeschool teacher, also likes to proofread on paper. “It allows me to hand the corrected copy to my kids so they can review it and enter the correction on their own in the original document,” she says.
6. Print is useful for checking layout and formatting.
Karen Sommerfeld, a North Carolina–based freelance book editor, prefers to proofread in print because it helps her see the big picture. “I definitely need the books printed out because I want to compare how chapter 3 is laid out compared to chapter 33,” she says.
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, a New York writer and editor, agrees that print is helpful for proofing pages and layouts that might be difficult to view onscreen. “We catch different things in these different media,” she says. “On layout projects, I often print out and proof on paper first, then transfer the edits to the screen.”
Back to Basics: Proofreaders’ Marks
Have these proofreading tips inspired you to print before proofing? Then you might want to learn a few proofreaders’ marks that can make it easier to note mistakes and make corrections on paper. Check out this list of useful notations from The Chicago Manual of Style.
You can also find more proofreading tips from professional writers and universities.