Proofreading & Editing Tips: Checklist for Content Writers

With apps like Grammarly pointing out everything from typos to wordiness, are the days of proofreading over? We still think proofreading content is essential – whether you’re an SEO, blogger, or social media manager. Open up, it’s the grammar police. 

Jump to a section in our proofreading guide:

Does proofreading still matter?

Yes, because Grammarly doesn’t spot every mistake and people are picky. AI-powered applications aren’t able to evaluate things like style and clarity like a human can. 

You can pre-program code to recognise common writing mistakes, and even train it to learn the rules of grammar. But computers really struggle with semantics – they can’t understand things like ‘the trophy won’t fit in the suitcase because it is too big’.

Never skip proofreading. It’s a valid use of time and content isn’t finished without it. 

Typos can make clients and managers annoyed. They might think things like:

‘What are we paying them for?’ or ‘I’m spending extra time editing’

More importantly, typos can make customers lose trust. They might be thinking:

‘Was this written by an expert?’ or ‘This looks like a spam site’

Are people really petty enough to leave your website after a few typos? Yes, some are! 

Even if you have a great product, sloppy writing can make you seem ‘unprofessional’ and increases the effort your reader has to put in. Correct language reads so smoothly you don’t notice it, while typos and mistakes can be irritating or ruin the flow.

This article Is Bad Grammar Killing Your SEO? sums it up better than anywhere:

‘Users will quickly leave your site if your content is full of typos, spelling errors and bad sentences. If Google sees users stopping and not staying, it’s a huge red flag that your site isn’t credible or worthy of top search engine ranking.’ 

Also, high-quality content is essential for conversions. Particularly on sites that offer health, financial and legal services – also known as ‘Your Money or Your Life’ pages. If a customer can’t trust you to proofread content, why would they buy from you?

In short, it still matters. This is why we’ve made a proofreading and editing guide.

What’s the difference between proofreading and editing?

Traditionally, editing referred to larger, structural changes like rewriting sentences for clarity. Proofreading was the stage just before print, where someone would give it a final once over to correct any errors the editor missed e.g. typos and punctuation.

Get all your editing out of the way before you move on to proofreading. There’s little point in checking for things like spelling mistakes when your work isn’t finished.

We’ll be covering tips for both editing and proofing as they’re both essential. 

Common mistakes in writing – a checklist

We asked our writers for the grammatical banes of their lives. Here they are.

  • Long sentences
  • Typos 
  • Inconsistency
  • Apostrophes
  • Spacing
  • Passive voice
  • Run-on sentences
  • Unverified facts

If you’ve been writing for a long time, you might have most of these ironed out. 

However, sometimes it takes an angry client or fussy editor to even realise you’re doing them. Here are some common mistakes content writers make, and why they’re not OK.

Long sentences

‘Here are 10 easy steps to bomb defusal.’ is shorter and clearer than: 

‘Whether it’s ticking in your home or in your garden shed, when it comes to defusing a bomb, we’ve put together these ten steps to make it easier.’

One of these sentences is fit for purpose. Customers are often in a hurry and don’t appreciate flowery writing after a Google search. They need a direct answer.

I’ve written a huge blog on shortening long sentences, but here are the key tips.

  • Aim for 15-20 words or fewer, and see if you can split up anything longer
  • Chop out unnecessary words like adverbs, or padding words like ‘that’ or ‘to’
  • Avoid ‘hedging’, a way to make you sound cautious e.g. ‘I think/maybe/seems to be’. It’s not wrong, and it can actually be a good thing! But avoid the temptation to hedge unless you have a reason to make a tentative or subjective point

Long sentences also have their place, but ask yourself WHY they need to be that long.

Scrabble blocks spelling out own your error

Typos and misspellings

Readers won’t mind (or even notice) the odd typo, but too many can make them leave.

Always use a tool like Grammarly when writing your content, but never rely on it to spot everything. Get to know your own mistakes; you’ll get more familiar the more you write.

If you know you make typos, be extra careful. Or ask a proofing buddy to help you out. 

Also, watch out for homophones. These are words that sound the same but are spelled differently. Surprisingly, native or proficient English speakers make this kind of mistake more often than learners – because they’re more likely to be thinking in the spoken version of the language than the written one. You just need to know the rule behind them or memorise the right spelling. Here are some common examples.

Their/there/they’re, to/too, where/were, it’s/its, you’re/your, affect/effect

And here are some examples of how to remember which spelling is which.

  • there’ is for places because it needs to pair with ‘where’
  • ‘it’s’ is a missing letter apostrophe, not a possessive apostrophe, so should match ‘he’s’, while ‘its’ should match ‘his’
  • affect’ is the one that’s a verb because ‘effecting’ looks wrong. ‘An affect’ and ‘an effect’ sound different and so are spelled differently

Another common mistake is using ‘a’ instead of ‘an’ before words beginning with vowels. 

There are some exceptions though: ‘a unicorn’ (because it starts with a ‘y’ sound which is a consonant) and ‘an MP’ (because it starts with an ‘e’ sound which is a vowel). There is also some controversy over the letter ‘h’ and whether to say ‘an hotel’ or ‘a hotel’. 

Pick one and stick with it or check your style guide, if you’re using one. 

English language rules are weird, and when you’re in the flow of writing you’re often more focused on the content. So it’s OK to resign yourself to making the odd typo.

Inconsistency

Do you or your client have a style guide? If they do, stick to it. If they don’t, encourage them to confirm how they want things to be written, or use a free one you like.

Style guides for The Guardian, the Telegraph and the BBC are all in the public domain.

You should also look out for spelling and style inconsistencies within one piece of writing. Here are a few inconsistencies to look out for when proofreading content.

  • Changing from hyphenated to not e.g. ‘high-quality’ vs ‘high quality’
  • Capitalising all or most words in a heading, then lower case elsewhere
  • Adding full stops at the end of bullet-pointed lists vs leaving open
  • Capitalising words e.g. ‘The government’ vs ‘The Government’
  • Using numeration or not e.g. ‘I have 2 grapes’ vs ‘I have two grapes’

It’s a weird SEO myth that you should include lots of alternative spellings to target different keywords. Google is clever enough to know ‘make-up’ and ‘makeup’ are the same thing. Choose one spelling and stick to it, or your writing can look careless.

Consistency in tone is also important, particularly for premium brands.

Apostrophes 

‘Grocer’s apostrophes’ are a good way to annoy picky shoppers. Avoid their scorn by using apostrophes correctly – luckily, Grammarly usually points errors like this out.

Here’s how you should use them unless you want to end up in Shop Horror.

  • Ownership: Natalie’s typos, Parents’ evening, the cat’s pyjamas
  • Shortening: it’s vs it is, shouldn’t vs should not, we’ll vs we will

Even worse, you then have to remember apostrophe rules for homophones like its and it’s, your and you’re, and were and we’re. If two words are being merged, you need an apostrophe, but ‘its’ – as in possession/belonging to it – doesn’t need an apostrophe. 

Confused? Here are some clear explanations of its and it’s, and your and you’re.

NEVER use apostrophes for plurals e.g. Katies Nail’s. There’s some debate on using them for unusual words or acronyms (mind your p’s and q’s), so Google these first.

Spacing

Merging into the world of design, consider how content looks visually. Look out for extra spaces, and add consistent gaps between paragraphs to be easy on the eyes.

Here are a few common spacing mistakes in writing to look out for.

  • Double spacing between words – some people (OK, typists) do this
  • Not getting a good balance between text chunks and white space
  • Adding an extra space or missing a space out before/after a word 
  • Weird CMS systems – learn how to add <p> or <br> tags manually
  • Not writing for mobile – Backlinko articles do mobile writing right

You don’t want people getting distracted by the layout of your page in a bad way. Using Ctrl + H brings up ‘Find and Replace’, so you can tackle any rogue extra spaces in one.

Passive voice

Grammarly, Hemingway and even Word spell checker all flag up passive voice. Active voice sounds clearer and more direct, and usually results in a punchier phrase.

For example ‘the ball was bounced by him’, in active voice is ‘he bounced the ball’.

Commercial examples:

‘An expert should install the flooring’ – active

‘The flooring should be installed by an expert’ – passive

Passive voice isn’t wrong, but it can make your writing sound vague and waffly.  

However, if the agent – the person or thing doing the verb – is obvious or unknown, active voice sounds clumsy. The passive ‘vaccines were given at the hospital’ sounds smoother than ‘they gave vaccines at the hospital’, even though it’s in passive voice.

If you want to shift the emphasis, you can also use passive voice like this:

‘Coke is drunk by people’ vs ‘People drink Coke’ – because Coke is what’s important. You can even just say ‘Coke is drunk’, as your reader can work out who’s doing the drinking.

Thoughts and feelings are often written in the passive voice as it feels more neutral. ‘He’s believed to be a bad writer’ feels kinder than ‘People believe he’s a bad writer’.

The more you write, the better you’ll get at knowing when passive works best.

Run-on sentences

Sentences that sound weird when spoken, or there’s just something ‘off’ about them. They often result from sentences being merged without using the right punctuation. 

For example, ‘I wrote a blog about SEO it took me ages to finish’ needs work.

Run-on sentences can also result from rushing and not reading your copy back. 

Ensure you’re using a comma or a conjunction (and/but/because) to merge sentences, or split them up into two shorter ones. Or try using semi-colons if you’re brave.

If you’re unsure whether you’re using the right punctuation mark, check first. 

The Oxford comma

For ambiguous sentences, the Oxford or serial comma makes them clearer. They’re often used in lists where it’s not clear how or whether the objects are connected:

‘We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin’ – needs an extra comma before the and

‘Let’s eat Grandma’ – needs a comma after eat, or could also be taken wrongly (this is technically called a ‘vocative’ comma, from the Latin for calling someone)

Unverified facts

Try to double-check facts like dates and times, and the correct spellings of companies, names and products. Not everyone will notice these, but it’s best to be accurate.

This is particularly important for journalists, or for data-led content used for PR. 

Now we’ve covered some of the most common mistakes in writing, how do you proofread minus Grammarly? Read on for our editing and proofreading tips.

a notebook and pen next to a mug of black coffee

Proofreading tips and checklist

We’ve made a guide to our favourite proofreading and editing content tips.

  • Grammarly
  • Hemingway 
  • Change format
  • Read aloud
  • Go backwards
  • Shelve it
  • Ask a friend
  • Use Ctrl + F

Here are some tried and tested ways to spot typos and mistakes in writing. 

Grammarly

Grammarly is an absolute godsend not just for content writers, but anyone who’s ever had to send an email. It flags things like grammatical mistakes, typos, and more subtle stuff like wordiness and tone. You can even police how informal you sound in emails.

But, you should never rely on an app to spot all your mistakes. Check out the ‘Grammarly…sucks’ subreddit – it doesn’t replace a good understanding of grammar!

It’s a valid use of your time to get better as a writer. It’s a skill worth developing.

Hemingway

I thought I was an OK copywriter, then I put my copy through the Hemingway app.

Hemingway gives a Readability score; highlighting hard-to-read sentences, adverbs (booooo) and passive voice. It also has an attractive colour-based interface. 

You’ll be shocked at how many sentences can be split up, how many words are useless, and how much you use passive voice. It’s my go-to for creating punchier content.

Change format

Staring at the same piece of content all day? Change the colour, size or font.

Staring at the same piece of content all day? Change the colour, size or font.

This can trick your brain into thinking it’s reading something for the first time!

Read aloud

It’s an oldie, but taking a moment to say your writing aloud helps to spot:

  • Extra or missing words
  • Sentences that make no sense
  • Wordy or confusing writing

Write like your customers talk and think. They’re more likely to understand, trust you, and ultimately convert. This is why a certain ex-president used to tweet like an idiot. 

Quick caveat: people confuse homophones because they sound the same when you say them aloud, so if you make this mistake a lot, don’t use this method to catch them!

Go backwards

Read your content backwards, last to first sentence – it helps you focus on checking for errors rather than reading as normal. Like swapping from creative to analytical mode.

You can even look for one issue at a time e.g. typos, apostrophes, clarity.

Use a ruler on your screen to proofread content line by line, if it helps you to focus. You won’t look weird. You’ll look like a dedicated copywriter honing your craft. 

Shelve it

If you have the luxury of a flexible deadline, leave proofreading for a day or so.

Sleeping on a piece of content you’ve looked at all day gives you a fresh pair of eyes to proofread it. You might read through it all again and realise some bits make you cringe. ALSO, PROOFREAD WHEN YOU’RE AT YOUR MOST ALERT I.E. IN THE MORNING.

If you’re in a rush or don’t have time, the changing colour/size/font trick can help.

Ask a friend

Having a ‘proofreading buddy’ to swap with can really help you resolve any gaps in your writing knowledge. They might point out that you hedge too much, constantly use one word or phrase (mine has always been ‘just’), or use a punctuation mark incorrectly. 

It’s scary to hear yourself judged, but it’s the only way to become a better writer.

Use Ctrl + F

Know you make a particular typo or grammatical mistake over and over? Do a quick check for them by pressing Ctrl + F. You can also use Find and Replace to save time correcting them. Kudos to Billie Geena on this proofing tip, it blew my mind!

And when you’ve finished proofreading, hold down Ctrl + H to Find two spaces and Replace them with one. You’ll be surprised how many extra spaces sneak in.

So welcome to the grammar police. Here’s your badge and a red pen.

Bonus Proofreading Tips for SEOs

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation i.e. getting your site to rank high on Google. 

As an SEO, here are a few extra writing tips that I’ve found helpful. When writing content from scratch, or merging and optimising an existing piece of writing, remember:

  • You’re writing for a person first, not the algorithm – it should read well
  • Keywords MUST feel natural, be very careful when adding ‘exact mentions’
  • When optimising, don’t inadvertently edit out essential words/phrases
  • Don’t waffle or pad out, include the info you need to rank above competitors
  • Write for ‘skimmers’ – brief intro/summary, clear headings, lists and graphics 
  • Small chunks of writing work better on mobile, so avoid wordy paragraphs
  • Strong, clear calls to action e.g. ‘RECEIVE OUR COPYWRITING GUIDE’
SEO on laptop checking organic traffic of content

To beat competitors in search results, content needs to look as professional as theirs.

Like we said at the beginning of our proofreading guide, good writing is more important than ever for ranking on Google. If you’re keyword stuffing, making your writing sound unnatural, or adding fluff to up the word count, it’s not going to help you rank.

It’s also worth noting that good content will always be hindered by bad technical SEO.

You need a balance between targeting keywords and sounding like a human being. When people love your writing and stay on your site longer, you’ll rank anyway.

Don’t have time to write quality content? Check out our Content Marketing Services.

The last word on editing and proofreading

Grammar isn’t everything. Don’t make yourself ill by trying to be perfect.

Many users won’t read all your content, or even notice typos or bad grammar. And the ones that do, might not care! Especially if your writing is fun or your product rocks.

Writing in your user’s tone of voice and keeping them engaged is more vital. Good writing comes with practice, and it’s a skill everyone can get better at. Don’t give up.

Like our proofreading and editing tips? Spot a typo?! We love feedback, so let us know.

Further reading: If you’re at all interested in the subject, why not take some time to learn about linguistics? You can work better as a writer and apply (or bend) the rules more effectively if you know where they come from and how people communicate. If you’re interested in language or languages, it’s a great Wiki-hole to fall into.

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