Proofreading checklist

7 things to check before you send, print, or publish

During a recent three-week span, I learned about three or four completed, printed projects that had errors in them—a wrong phone number here, an incorrect date there—little things that don’t make themselves obvious until after they’re printed and widely distributed!

Overall, my error rate is pretty low. I completed more than a thousand projects over the past year, and almost none of them had errors! But learning about three or four in that short span of time inspired me to buckle down and improve my systems. In the process, I put together a handy-dandy checklist of specific things to look for during the proofing process. You might find it useful too—

Proofreading checklist1. Are your numbers consistent?

Decide up front (or check your style guide) which numbers you are going to spell out and which ones you will use digits for. Then apply your decision consistently. You can use Find to search for each instance where a digit is used, so you can apply your decision case by case. Or, if you know that you want all numbers under 10 to be written out, you can Find-and-Replace those. In the Find field, type “1”­ —and make sure you include a space before and after the number. In the Replace field, type “[space]one[space]”. That way, when you click Replace or Replace All, your choice will affect only instances where “1” is its own number, not where it appears as a digit in larger numbers.

Proofreading checklist2. Did you use spaces instead of tabs?

If you have used the same number of spaces (say, four) to indicate an indent at the beginning of each paragraph, you can use Find-and-Replace to find “[space][space][space][space]” and replace it with “^t” (that’s the symbol for a tab). If you can’t recreate “^t” with your keyboard, type a tab in your document, then highlight it and copy it. When you open the Find-and-Replace dialog box, you can paste into the Replace field, and you’ll see the “^t” symbol. Even better—remove all tabs and use the paragraph indent to indicate the beginning of a new paragraph. This will save time later if you want your document to be ebook-format-ready, using a site like, for example.

Proofreading checklist3. Are you still double-spacing after periods?

If you can’t break yourself of the habit of double-spacing after a period, at least go back and do a search for all instances of “[space][space]” and replace them with “[space].” In fact, you may need to do this more than once: if you have instances where there are three or more spaces in your document, replacing two of those spaces with a single space will still leave you with a double space. Note: One of the surest ways to tell that a book has been self-published by an amateur is to check for double-spacing after periods.

Proofreading checklist4. Did you use “Its” and “It’s” correctly?

A lot of people have trouble with apostrophes, and the “its/it’s” twins seem particularly ambiguous and sneaky. Use the Find command to locate each instance of “it’s”—and as you see each one in context, read the sentence out loud saying “it is” instead of “it’s.” If the sentence still makes sense, then “it’s” is correct in that instance. For example: • It’s raining cats and dogs. (“It is raining cats and dogs” still makes sense.) • My dog had cake on it’s birthday. (“My dog had cake on it is birthday” doesn’t make sense; that means the apostrophe doesn’t belong in that “its.”)

Proofreading checklist5. Did you use “Your” and “You’re” correctly?

You can also do the above exercise with “your” and “you’re.”
(But remember to say “you are” instead of “it is,” otherwise nothing will make sense.)

Proofreading checklist6. What about “Their,” “They’re,” and “There”?

You can do the above exercise to find instances when “they’re” (“they are”) is correct, but what about “there” and “their”? You have to adapt the exercise to make sure all three of these homonyms are being used appropriately. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

1. First use Find to locate instances of “there” in your document.

  • Each time you find “there,” ask if you can replace it with “here” and still have a logical sentence. (The meaning might change, but it will still be a logical sentence.)
  • If using “here” doesn’t sound right, use the “they are” test to see if you should be using “they’re” instead of “there.”
  • If “they are” doesn’t make sense, this is probably an instance where you should be using “their.” To make sure, try substituting “our”—if it still sounds logical, that’s confirmation that you are using “their” correctly.

2. Now use Find to locate all the instances of “their.” Test each one by saying “they are” and “here” and “our,” and then make the appropriate choice.

3. Use Find one more time, this time to locate instances of “they’re.” Here’s a sample sentence that uses all three homonyms correctly: They’re going to put their luggage over there.

Proofreading checklist7. Are your dates and days correct?

Search for all instances of dates and days in your document, such as “Monday, August 12,” and make sure August 12 is actually a Monday. The most thorough way to search your document is to type each of the seven days in the Find field, and then check those instances one by one.

Bonus: The “of” and “have” switcheroo

Search through your document to find all instances of “should of,” “would of,” and “could of.” The phrases you want to replace these with are “should have,” “would have,” and “could have.” These are all verb constructions, and they need the helping verb “have,” not the preposition “of.”

If you prefer to have an objective professional look over your documents before you release them to the public, contact LifeLines about our proofreading rates.

6 thoughts on “Proofreading checklist”

  1. I am guilty of the double space after each sentence. We learned that in typing class in the 80’s. But, I didn’t double space this comment and I had to think about my keystrokes so I wouldn’t. That will be a hard habit to break!

      • Since the advent of word processing on computers with automatic spacing, it’s one space after a period now. I’m also a product of the pre-computer generation and that is a tough habit to break. Find/Replace has become one of my most used tools. I’d like to add to your list: before going to print, check the spellings of names against a list or piece that has the correct spelling. Names with “y” or “i” within them or at the end are vulnerable to misspelling (or spelling to the person’s preference).

  2. [… instances of “should of,” “would of,” and “could of.” The phrases you want to replace these with are “should have,” “would have,” and “could have”…] An error way too common and always inexcusable. Sadly, it is symptomatic of someone who writes like they talk.

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