Proofread FASTER: Proofreading on a Time Crunch

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The deadline is here.

You’ve finished your piece, or your client is waiting for theirs, and you’re almost out of time to fix it. Your heart is pounding. Your nerves are vibrating. Your stomach is squirming. You know that the writing needs another look, but you have no time!

Stop. Take a deep breath. You’ve got this.

I’ve been working for a newspaper for several years. Over the course of three days, every week, I proofread anywhere from 50 to 70+ articles and editorials of varying lengths. Some are short. Others can be over a thousand words. Between Tuesday morning and Thursday afternoon, I have to print and read everything, pass it off to be proofread by someone else, and enter the necessary changes to a number of stories whose only connection is that they are somehow relevant to people in the community we cover.

All of this is done between a number of other production and office duties. I have gotten quite good at proofreading and editing quickly. I know what to look for, what to fix immediately, and what to question. I’m good at that with other people’s writing, too. I am a word nerd with a keen eye for typos. Proofreading is my Thing. It’s what I do.

This post is not for people like me. It’s not for people who might want to go pro with proofreading or editing, either.

If you just have a document you need to improve quickly for school or work, this is for you. Here, I’ll tell you some techniques you can try to make a piece of writing better when you’re running out of time.

And I’ll be completely honest with you: Your piece might not be perfect when you’re done with it. It might not get you an A+ grade or win you any awards. Sometimes, though, all of us need to settle for “good enough” instead of perfect. I’m guessing that’s where you’re at now.


The Situation: Imminent Disaster

The ticking of the clock is far too loud. Sweat is beading on your brow. If there were a Proofreading 911, you’d be grabbing your phone and dialing.

You’re almost out of time.

Welcome to Hell Mode.

Ignore all of the advice to go slowly that you may have been given about proofreading. While it is best to take a slow, methodical, multi-step approach to proofreading, sometimes you can’t. Maybe someone pushed this on you at the last minute. Maybe you put off your homework for so long that you’re in panic mode. Maybe you have to write something for a test. Maybe you had time early on, but Life Happened. In any case, you need to get this done fast.

Here are a few ways you can speed up the process and come up with a document that is good enough to read.

If you’re in a really big hurry:

  • Take a break: If you’re proofreading something of yours, you need some distance from your work
  • Focus: Do whatever works best for you, but be safe
  • Go as slowly as you can
  • Be as thorough as you can
  • Target weaknesses: Look for known problems first
  • Find and replace: Make sure you don’t replace anything you shouldn’t with something weird
  • Change the formatting: Anything that lets you see the work with fresh eyes, from new fonts to reading aloud
  • Pay close attention to headlines: Smaller errors are a bit easier to forgive than errors in BIG, bold text
  • Lean hard on digital tools: Toss the piece into an online grammar and spelling checker, and hope
  • Call in reinforcements: Bribe your friendly neighborhood word nerd or hire a professional, if there’s time
  • Be gentle with yourself: Don’t beat yourself up, and do better next time

And now, if you have a little time to read some words…

First Off, Take a Break

Grab yourself a cup of coffee (if you’re not sensitive to high caffeine, I’m really into Death Wish’s Blue and Buried these days) or some other treats, maybe some water, and take some time to breathe and think. It might seem like you don’t have time for a break because you are drowning in Hell Mode, but try to find a minute or two. A little distance will help.

Once you’ve done that, try these helpful tips to proofread fast.

Focus

Now is not the time for multitasking. Now is the time for laser focus. Any trick you know that works for you when you need to focus hard, use it. Music. Silence. Timers—this simple one you can glance at easily is pretty neat. Any focus technique that is unlikely to get you arrested or put in the hospital is good to deploy here, if it’s compatible with hunting down typos like your life depends on it. You know yourself better than I do here. If it works it works. Do it.

Personally, I like hunting down one of those super long binaural beats audio tracks on YouTube with names like “focus music” when I’m in Hell Mode. Does it work? Hard to say…but it’s worth a shot. And when I can’t tolerate even that, I like my comfy earplugs for blocking out distractions—those do work.

Then, go as slowly as you can get away with, and be as thorough as you can. I know how much you want to skim, but that’s a bad idea. Don’t skim. Do your best.

Target Weaknesses

Is there an issue you know you have, or know that your client has? Maybe you have trouble spelling a word. Maybe they have a habit of forgetting periods at the end of a sentence. Maybe you get a homophone confused all the time. Maybe they have a strange amount of love for the tab key. If you know what weaknesses might be hiding in the document, look for those first. 

Find and Replace

Some weaknesses can be easily fixed with Find and Replace. Most word processors these days have some form of Find and Replace function, and many of them even have options for you to input the special characters or other issues you cannot easily type into the boxes. This can take care of any repeated spelling or punctuation problems.

If you’re using Microsoft Word and you’re a little tech-savvy, you can even create a macro that can change all of the issues you know are probably in there. I have one of those at the newspaper. With one click of a button I have pinned to my Quick Access Toolbar, I can make everyone’s most common punctuation quirks fit our style.

Be careful, though: sometimes, since so many words contain parts of other words, you might wind up accidentally “fixing” part of a word. This can leave you with strange, confusing misspellings or word choices elsewhere. For instance, you might decide that you want to turn “Ron” into “Greg.” You decide to do a Find and Replace, but there is a whole scene about somebody ironing a shirt. Suddenly, the character is iGreging the shirt instead.

If there is an option to narrow down the replacement search, use it. Microsoft Word lets you narrow the results down to only words that share the same case, or to the whole word only. That can help ensure that when Ron becomes Greg, no one will be iGreging any shirts.

Change Up How You Read

If you can, change the formatting of the document. That can trick your brain into seeing the words in a different light. If you wrote in Times New Roman, try changing the font to the infamous Comic Sans. Change the background color on the screen. Change the device you read on.

Unless you’re more comfortable with it, I don’t recommend printing your document out when you’re in a big hurry. If that works well for you, hey, go for it, and if you’re already writing on paper, good luck, but, in my opinion, digital is king when you’re aiming for speed. Being able to make changes as you go? Is excellent.

Another option is to read it aloud, or have the computer do it for you. Reading aloud and hearing it read instead of reading silently will help you see the writing in another light as well.

One more idea is to read the work backward. Read from the bottom up, or from the last word of each sentence to the first.

Any trick you can think of that makes you see the piece with fresh eyes can help you see the errors in it more easily. Don’t get too creative with your tricks, though. When you’re in a rush, readability is crucial to finding errors in the document. Make sure the document is easy to read without straining your eyes.

Whatever option you choose, presenting the document to yourself in a different way from the original can help you find the errors your brain won’t let you see.

Pay Close Attention to Headlines

Little stands out to readers quite like a typo in big, BIG text. Somehow, though, those typos are weirdly easy to miss while you’re proofreading. So, if the document you’re working on contains headlines, or any other attention-grabbing text, make sure that it is perfect. Smaller flaws are easier for readers to overlook than the ones in big, bold type. Don’t let the bigger text catch people’s attention for the wrong reasons.

On a similar note, triple-check names, please. I’m someone whose name is a bit tricky to spell, and I know I’m not alone in that department. Make sure you are spelling people’s names correctly, please.

Lean Hard on Digital Tools

Normally I wouldn’t recommend relying too much on proofreading programs, such as Grammarly and the like. They are good, useful tools, but they aren’t as trustworthy as human eyes.

But we’re in a hurry today.

This is a writing emergency.

That deadline is coming. It’s right outside the door. Both of us can hear the rasps of its breaths, the sloppy, slavering sounds of it licking its lips. It’s close. It’s hungry. We have to run.

Run, my friend. Hie thee to Grammarly or your other favorite tool and beg for its wisdom. We can’t always be perfect. We can’t always be great. Sometimes, we just need to be “good enough.” This is one of those times.

Maybe today we can skirt by with a B+. Toss the piece into a grammar and spelling checker, fix what it tells you to fix, ignore the fixes you know are wrong, look for other problems, and hope.

Call in Reinforcements

Got a friend who can spot a typo at a thousand paces? Know one of us word nerds who seems to live for finding flaws in writing? Ask them for help. Promise them cookies or money or other nice things and throw yourself upon their mercy.

Or you can hire a proofreader. This might prove to be costly, in both time and money. Some professional proofreaders are willing to take rush orders (including me!) for extra money, but that is still dependent on their availability.

If you can’t get someone else in time, you’ll have to be your own hero. You can do it. If you can string some sentences together, you can definitely proofread them—I promise.

Be Kind to Yourself

We’ve all been there. Don’t beat yourself up. Ignore whoever it is that’s yelling at you for procrastinating. This really isn’t the end of the world. Fix your piece up as well as you can, submit it to whoever, and rest. You’ve done what you can. Some days, that’s all you can do. Do something nice for yourself and do better next time, you marvelous badass, you.

I’m proud of you for looking for help—no, really! I know how corny that sounds, but it’s true. You could’ve floundered around until you ran out of time, but you went looking for tips to get through it instead. Good for you.

Conclusion

In a perfect world, we would never have to rush through the things that matter. This, though, is not a perfect world. We make mistakes like procrastinating for too long, other people impose near-impossible deadlines on us, or life gets in the way. That’s why, if you do any kind of proofreading, you need a good option or two for proofreading in a hurry.

Now get out of here and go proofread that document! Then, when you’re done, come back and learn a bit more about the proofreading and editing process for next time.


For those of you who aren’t in Hell Mode at the moment, what was a time you were? How did proofreading on a time crunch turn out for you? Tell me in the comments below!

While you’re here, need some tips on navigating a sea of plot holes? How about some insight on why proofreading is so important in business writing? Or would you like an experienced professional proofreader to take a look at your stuff? I’ll proofread up to 400 words of your writing for FREE!

Be sure to sign up for my newsletter, too! If you do, you’ll receive a free copy of my Ten Tips to Proofread Anything and my response to the claim that “said is dead,” weekly updates, and any other goodies I want to throw your way.

Now, go do some proofreading!

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