Proofreading Tips?

I recently received the following inquiry from reader Kathleen:

I was wondering, do you have a proofreading system or any tips? Especially for when there is quick turn-around and I don’t have time to let a document sit to come back with fresh eyes (and I don’t have access to someone who can proofread for me). I would appreciate any suggestions.

You can find plenty of proofreading tips online. As usual, what applies to narrative writing won’t necessarily apply to contracts. For example, reading your 30-page draft asset purchase agreement aloud or backwards would be more likely to drive you bonkers than help you spot glitches. So here are my suggestions, starting with the most useful (Kathleen mentioned the first two):

  • Set your draft aside for at least a few hours—ideally overnight—so you can return to it refreshed.
  • Have someone else give it a readthrough.
  • For your proofreading, use a printed copy. If you do your proofreading on screen, you’re likely to miss stuff. And you might forget entirely to check any headers and footers, leading you to send out a draft with, for example, a wrong date in the footer and no page numbers.
  • Use the spell-checker.
  • Consider using another information-technology checking tool such as DealProof or Lexicon.
  • Search for any words or phrases you have trouble with. For example, you might want to search for shall to make sure (1) that each shall passes the “has a duty” test and (2) that you really do want to express an obligation rather than a condition.

Someday I’d like to develop software that would check for MSCD compliance. But that won’t be happening anytime soon. 

Anyone wish to add anything?

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

8 thoughts on “Proofreading Tips?”

  1. It is helpful to have the contract on screen and ready for changes as you scroll through and proof read the hard copy. That way you can make and save your changes as you go along.

  2. I think a lot comes down to preference – for example, I like to do exactly the opposite of what Tammi suggests – I turn off my screen entirely when I am proofing and mark it up in pen. I do use the wordsearch as well though.

    Generally I have nothing to add to Ken’s list. The most important for me are (i) printing it off and (ii) actively thinking about what you are reading – it can be too easy to slip over the words waiting to be snagged by something that jars, but you won’t catch everything that way.

  3. Art, I couldn’t agree more with your technique. I should elaborate in more detail. I assumed from the advise above Kathleen would already proof in the way suggested. Not to mention an audit on hard copy should be conducted no matter how good you are. However, in addition to that, due to the time constraints explained in the question I recommend when you proof the hard copy and you stumble across a few mistakes why not make those changes on the soft copy that instants rather than marking them on the hard copy and then going back to the soft copy after. I have found that this cuts my review time down significantly.

  4. Ken, one aspect of this issue that can perhaps be overlooked is that lawyers often (usually?) engage in two types of proofreading at the same time, namely copyediting and substantive editing.

    The first is “looking for nits,” for example, ensuring the a defined term is used consisently throughout the text, proper opening and closing of parentheses, etc. That is work that any trained editor who is not a lawyer can perform.

    The second is the substantive task that falls to a lawyer to perform: do these words accomplish what they are intended to accomplish, no more, no less. So, for example, is the definition of “Purchased Assets” accurate and complete? Where certain clauses survive termination, have all of them been properly identified? Does the earn-out clause work the way the parties intended? These are all legal, not editing, questions.

    I believe that most lawyers attempt to engage in these two quite different activities simultaneously, but they are quite different in nature. Despite the alleged virtues of multitasking, I would recommend that one engage in at least two separate passes of the document, the first to engage in copyediting pure and simple, the second to engage in substantive editing. This allows one to focus in a way that increases the efficacy of both acitivities.

  5. All good ones. Here are 10 tips for proofreading and some really fun exercises that will help writers catch their own mistakes-even spelling errors! See if you can catch all of the errors at Top 10 Proofreading Tips without using these tips. I’ll wager that you can’t. These proofreading tips will make a difference in your own writing and in that of your students.


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