Sixty second writing tips: reverse-proofing gets rid of the editorial gremlins

Has anybody run into back-masking lately? Those moments during song-fade outs where the sound engineer splices in a voice, backwards, ostensibly containing a message.

1197094932257185876johnny_automatic_books_svg_medThey date from the halcyon days of rock music when such things were literally done by reversing tapes, though most of them weren’t messages at all – they said ‘werp, weeb, gleep’ whichever way round you played them. And those that were intelligible didn’t say anything useful. I mean, who’s this ‘Paul’ and why should we care that he’s dead?

Still, it’s something writers can learn from. One of the biggest hurdles when proofing for literals –typographical errors – is that meaning overwhelms our ability to see any mistakes in the words themselves.

The answer is to proof the words backwards. Literally. Read the piece, word by word, one at a time, in reverse. Kills the meaning straight off – and with it, gives you a fresh eye for all those niggly typos, misplaced spaces, wrong sorts of dashes, inconsistent quote marks and everything else that leaks past auto-correct. And trust me, auto-correct is very leaky when it comes to these things. But readers are not, when spotting them.

Do you reverse-proof?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


13 thoughts on “Sixty second writing tips: reverse-proofing gets rid of the editorial gremlins

  1. Hi Matthew, I have heard of this before… many years ago. Unfortunately I forgot all about it till reading your post.

    This year, I have an excellent proof-reader for my next book in the series Grow in Grace. But perhaps I should go back and use that technique on Hold the Faith, then re-publish it. I noticed a couple of things when formatting it for Smashwords.

    My trouble is what you hinted at… I get caught up in the story, my brain fills in the gaps and off I go, missing things again. I have been amazed at what my proof-reader has picked up.

    Thanks for the great hint.


    1. Pleased to be of assistance! I learned the technique many years ago from a US freelance journalist who was living in New Zealand. It’s always amazing what proof-readers pick up too – as you say, authors fill in the gaps on their own work.

    1. It’s very time consuming and also extremely difficult, because by nature we read the other way. A variant on it is to print out pages of your work and read them out of order, which is faster but not quite so effective in terms of picking up the niggly things. The real answer is hiring two proof-readers (two!), to comment separately, which is how publishers do it.

  2. I saw a tweet by Nicholas Sparks saying he was in the process of doing reverse editing on one of his novels. This was after all the professional editorial passes his book went through. He said he did it because “it was his book”. I had to respect him for that. He cares about the quality.

  3. It’s amazing what gets found even at the end of the process. No amount of proofing seems able to pick everything – even the multiple professional reads of the usual publishing process.

  4. In ages distant I had an editor who did it with everything we published in a small Christian journal. I could never understand how he had the patience to slog through and not lose focus but he did a great job! Not sure I’d ever be vary successful as my mind would wander.

    A retired Photographer looks at life
    Life Unscripted

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