Tips for Proofreading in the Age of Distraction

I have the great pleasure of writing, editing and proofreading for AB Editorial.  It’s one of my dream jobs.  This introvert loves to settle into her quiet home office, steaming mug of coffee in hand, and break out the mental Red Pen.

Most proofreaders are avid readers in general – but that’s not to say that the job is always easy.  You do enough proofing and editing and you can find yourself skimming without paying much attention.  This goes double for particularly dry content.  Beyond considerations such as style and grammar, I’m concerned with clarity and whether the message is cogent.  Naturally, this doesn’t allow for a wandering mind.

Because I need to be able to ask critical questions about the content, focus is key.  Over the years I’ve found some infallible methods for maintaining focus and delivering on deadline.  These tips have carried me through hundreds of proofing projects, and they’ve especially come in handy when the client wants clean copy submitted immediately, if not sooner.

Create a Distraction-Free Environment

Setting the scene is half the battle.  Well, not half (lest I do a great disservice to the grammarians and word nerds who have poured into me since I was a wee tot learning irregular verbs, let’s acknowledge now that half the battle is the language learning we’ve been doing literally from day one), but it’s crucial nonetheless.  For me, this means:

Maintaining a clutter-free workspace.  Stacks of papers waiting to be filed draw my eyes away from higher-priority tasks.  Staying organized is an ongoing effort, but I’ve found the “out of sight, out of mind” concept to be spot on when it comes to maintaining focus.

Turning off or actively ignoring notifications.  Without a deliberate effort, those pings! announcing new emails or social media activity will pull even the most attentive away from the task at hand.

Playing instrumental music.  Film scores are in heavy rotation, and I keep one particularly soulful Wynton Marsalis album in my back pocket for when the hour is especially late or the copy especially onerous.  This tip has served me well for years, whether I was pulling all-nighters ahead of college exams, cultivating some artificial solitude via earbuds in the era of cubicles or powering through the post-lunch slump… um, any day.  The key here is a lack of lyrics and thus a lack of temptation to sing along or contemplate the message.  Yo-Yo Ma makes for an excellent proofreading companion.

Keep an Eye on the Deadline, But Remain Flexible

Depending on the client, your priorities – and your deadlines – may be constantly shifting.  To accommodate projects that become suddenly urgent, I attempt to get as far ahead as possible with time-sensitive tasks.  I often aim to complete projects a few days early, but that’s not possible with every assignment; some have much tighter turnaround times.  However, handling most jobs this way does afford me a bit of wiggle room to tackle the ones that somehow transformed into minor emergencies between last night and this morning.

Take a Break Now and Then

Staring at a computer screen for hours on end can wreak havoc on a person’s vision.  When I’m in the zone or consumed with a fascinating piece, I try to remember to take a visual breather.  I’m fortunate to have a window with a view, so every 10 to 15 minutes, I make a point of focusing on a bit of detail outside a lot farther away than the end of my arm. (They call it the 20-20-20 rule: To reduce eye strain, every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and focus on something 20 feet away.)

Not only does your ophthalmologist recommend this, I’m of the firm belief that window gazing is essential to the editing process.  If you don’t have the luxury of watching your dog chase squirrels while you edit, I suggest stretching your legs a couple of times an hour and aiming for the indoor equivalent.  These mini respites can be equally refreshing mentally, allowing you to return to the proofing job with fresh eyes – literally and figuratively.

The majority of my proofreading happens on-screen, but it’s a treat to edit hard copies.  When you’re able, print out an article or manuscript and relocate.  A change of scenery does wonders.