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Editing backwards


The blog of Stephen Arnott (aka S J Arnott). Writer of the Leofric Dark Age adventures and Jack Bleacher.

Editing backwards

Stephen Arnott

bending back shutterstock_96045800.jpg

When you attempt to proofread your own work, you encounter two problems.

First, each time you review your text, it’s tempting to indulge in a quick re-write and give it one final polish. At the proofreading stage this is a no-no. The re-write phase is over. At some point you have to draw a line under what you've done and move on.

Second, there’s the fact that, at this stage in the process, you know your work so well there’s a tendency to skim read. You might think you’re proofing the words on the page, but often you’re reviewing the ones in your head. You know that the "rain in Spain falls meanly in the plain", so you don’t notice when it mainly doesn’t. Our minds are good at papering over cracks like this, especially when the text is familiar to us.

One way to avoid the above is to proofread backwards. This method is usually taken to mean one of two things:

  • To start at the back of your manuscript and read every word in reverse order - this like reads text your so.
  • To start at the back of your manuscript and read each sentence normally but in reverse order – last sentence, then penultimate sentence etc.

Or do both. Go to the last sentence in your text and read the words in reverse order, then read the sentence again normally, then repeat both steps with your penultimate sentence, then do the same with the sentence before that...

By changing the order of the words, you destroy your mental tramlines – the ones that prevent you spotting the errors you’ve read over so many times they’re virtually invisible. Reading in reverse also breaks the flow of the overall narrative, meaning that your urge to re-write is diminished.

The reverse word read-through is particularly good at picking up extra words that have slipped in, and homonyms such as complement/compliment, but the downside is that it's exhausting. I'd defy anyone to do it for very long, but even a quick backwards skim can catch some errors.

The reverse sentence read-through is much less tiring. It does much the same as the reverse word read-through, but also gives you a better chance to re-check the sense of the words, ensure nothing is missing, and make sure that all the punctuation is as you’d wish.

Backwards proofreading is time consuming, but if you’re revising your own work, it gives you a better chance of looking at it with fresh eyes. An invaluable tool.