How Did I Miss That? – Copy Editing 101

I have a confession. Despite a Master’s degree in English and learning to read before I went to elementary school, I’m not a great speller. I’m okay if I can actually write the word, but if you ask me how to you spell “acquaintances”, it’s going to take a minute, I’m probably going to start and stop a couple times, and to actually be able to give you what you want, I’m going to have to trace the word on a flat surface with my fingertip. So you would think I’d be a big fan of the grammar and spell check functions that exist in almost any technology application with a text box. But you would be oh-so wrong.

While writers can put spell and grammar checks to good use during the editing and proofreading process, they absolutely should not be relied upon. For two primary reasons –

1)     The dictionary used by most grammar and spell checks is not a full version dictionary. If you are employing any word that is not routinely used, it may not be in this dictionary, and spell checks will flag such a word even if it is spelled correctly. This is certainly true of many terms whose roots are in other languages, and just forget using archaic words altogether.

2)     Grammar check does not account for many levels of complex sentences. It is actually set at about a 6th grade grammar level. While this is useful for most communication, if you’re going to try anything fancy, the grammar check may flag it as an error, and sometimes, its explanation of what is “wrong” makes no logical sense.

For example, in this document MS Word insisted that I needed to change my sentence. Unfortunately, it would have made me to sound like Gollum from Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. I politely told it no after taking a picture of the ridiculousness.


Don’t ask me why Word wanted me to do this. I have no explanation. But it is also why I would really like to have an “I Have a Master’s Degree in English so Stop Telling Me My Grammar’s Bad” button.

So what can you do to have confidence in your editing process since, as much as it may try, modern programming falls short?

Try some of these:

1)     Slow down. It’s completely fine to fly through a rough or even first draft. It’s important to get your ideas down before they escape you, but finishing and finessing a piece of writing is like making wine. Rushing through will only hurt your product. This is especially true since spell check routinely misses mistakes if you have typed another word! “Dinning” is a word but means something completely different from “dining”.

2)     Edit in stages. When I say stages, I mean go through your draft looking for a particular error or problem area. Have problems switching verb tenses? Go through your entire document looking at each verb in context. Tend toward long, dull descriptions? Go through your document condensing as many phrases or groups of words as possible into single, vivid words.

3)     Keep a Proofreader’s Guide. An old professor made me do this in grad school. A Proofreader’s Guide is a list of the errors you make most often. For example, I can guarantee that in each piece of writing I have produced I have put “out” for “our” and/or vice versa. This is a great opportunity to use your technology and hit “Find All”. You can then check the context of the sentence and be sure you’ve used the right word. A Proofreader’s Guide should be an ongoing, developing document. Add checkpoints as needed. When you’re editing a document, be sure to check each one of your most frequent errors.

4)     Run it through readers. I have a select group of people that I trust to look at my work. They are careful, particular, and members of the grammar police. When you look at your work over and over, it is easy to get tired and overlook mistakes. Additionally, your brain already knows what it’s trying to communicate via the text, and brains are very good at filling in gaps. For these reasons, it’s easy to overlook errors in your own work.

5)     Read it backwards. Crazy, I know! But trust me on this one. I don’t remember where I heard this, but it was by far one of the best editing tips I’ve ever come across. This is a strategy that should only be used at the end of the process when you are confident you haven’t left out details or important information. It is strictly to check grammar and spelling. When I was doing the final edit on The Kyla: Return, I literally started with the last sentence on the last page of the last chapter. After checking it, I moved to the prior sentence, and so on and so forth until I had gone through the entire novel. Why does it work? Because no matter how slow you go or how hard you’re focusing, brains like to engage in plot and process, and they are easily distracted by them. Reading backwards breaks that flow rather than allowing your brain to engage in what is happening in the story or essay. It forces you to consider each word of each sentence just like it was brand new to you.

So how are spell and grammar checks helpful? Well if I see a squiggly line, I always check it. Sometimes we make mistakes that these tools do pick up. But unless you want to be really embarrassed, don’t rely on them, and even if you’re not relying them, be extra careful when editing. I always remind myself at least once when doing a final edit – I haven’t been careful enough.

So now, I think I will go read through this several times, check my outs and ours, and go through it backward. I’ll really be cringing if I’ve screwed up editing this post. Sheeeesh!

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