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The Importance of Proofing

When you draft any document, you want to be sure that what you have written represents you and your business in the best possible light; be it content on your web-page, a client report, or a blog on LinkedIn.

Its all too easy to make a small, embarrassing, errors or typo’s – I did it myself when writing that very sentence.

Errors can really impact; they can damage your reputation, reduce confidence in the author and distract the reader from the message of the content. All of these can negatively impact your customer base, which effects your income and ultimately your business reputation.

The world is a judgmental place. Your first impression doesn’t want to be one littered with mistakes. If I’m reading an article, book, or report and I notice a spelling mistake, my opinion of the author instantly drops. While online audiences tend to be slightly more forgiving, it is vitally important that you ensure your work is 100% accurate when it comes to printed material – especially that which is headed for a client.

Always allow yourself time to review, sanity check and proof your work (or ensure there is time for someone to do it for you).

Part of my day job sees me proofing correspondence shared with clients. Its my responsibility to make sure the documentation we produce is of the highest standard; that the content reads and flows well, that spelling is correct, the work is grammatically perfect and that the piece consistently follows our house style (same font, size, spacing, bullet type, etc.)

I can’t stress enough that you cannot rely on spellchecker alone. That’s not to say don’t use it – please do, just remember that it is not a foolproof tool. There are errors that slip through the spellchecker net. For example, beware the homonym! I’m not sure we would get the same results when conducting clinical trails as we would clinical trials –spellchecker won't notice, but I’m pretty sure our clients would.

Here are my top tips for proofreading effectively:

1.     Print when possible.

Its easier to spot mistakes when you are looking at a piece of paper rather than staring at a screen. It’s easier to jot down corrections when you work with pen and paper and your eyes will thank you for not straining them by staring at a screen for hours.

2.     Slow and steady wins the race.

Take your time. If you rush, you will skim and if you skim, you will miss little inconsistencies. Your brain will automatically correct issues that aren’t right (our brains are wonderful things). If you find you are going word blind (yes, that’s a thing), try reading out-loud to yourself – you will pick up sentences that don’t flow quite right, or try subvocalisation (hearing the words in your mind) if you don’t fancy drumming up an audience on the bus commute into work.

3.     Double over.

Don’t rely on catching everything on the first try – read your document once, twice, even thrice over. I often use each round to check specific elements. On the first read through, I sanity check the words, the sentence structure, ensure the paragraphs flow, word selection. Second read through is all about SPAG (Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation). Round 3 is where I get really picky – here I’m looking at layout, headings, font use, font size – the finer details that often get missed but stick out like a sore thumb to the reader.

4.     Top to Tail

Don’t forget to check the headers and the footers – they are easily missed when you are so focused on checking the bulk.

5.     Just ‘cos you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Check your margins and the justification of your words – its isn’t always obvious to the eye when you are looking at the piece as a whole but to a first time reader, its as plain as a nose on a face. Strive for consistency throughout.

6.     House style

Are you working to your own company style or to your client’s style? If this is a piece for your client, do they have preference over how numbers are displayed (alpha vs numeric), which bullet points to use, how far your indents are laid – always have the conversation beforehand so you know what style to adopt throughout your work. If you are working to your own house style, it’s a good idea to have a checklist to work to - one that highlights every preference for each document prepared by your company and apply this checklist to every document. (This checklist should also feature within your document procedure - but that's another discussion we should have). Consistency shows that you are organised, professional and polished.

7.     Take a break

Fresh eyes spot inconsistencies a lot easier than eyes which have been looking at the same text for hours. A small break away from the task in hand can make it easier for you to review the piece with fresh eyes and a fresh mind. Your brain won’t fill in the gaps quite so readily after a rest.

8.     The bigger picture

I've mentioned it before, but it is so important to remember – proofing isn’t just about checking the spelling and punctuation of your work – its about polishing your piece. It’s ensuring your work is consistent throughout, ensuring it looks perfect, reads well and represents your best efforts. Check for inconsistencies with layout, margins, bullets, tables, justification, headers, footers – the whole shebang. It is so much more than a spellcheck.

9.     Spellchecker is a tool, not a solution.

Spellchecker is a great tool – that little red wiggly line is fantastic at telling you where the obvious mistakes are, however, it is not a perfect solution. It isn’t foolproof so you cannot rely on it alone. Spellchecker prefers Americanisms, not ideal for a Brit. Spellcheck won’t differentiate between homophones (there, they’re, or their), nor will it pick out a word used incorrectly but spelled right (She did nor want to make mistakes...).

10.  Always accept a second pair of eyes

If you can, its always a good idea to have someone else review your work before it is sent to its final destination – someone who isn’t invested in the work, who isn’t biased, and, most importantly, who isn’t familiar with it.

As I have mentioned before, our brains are wonderful machines – they skim read and still retrieve the full message, they fill in the gaps when sentences aren’t complete (we’ve all seen that meme where we are all in the top 5% of clever people because we can understand a paragraph written without vowels, am I right?!) – brains are a wonder, however, you need to train your brain to proof. It is a skill and it can be learned and refined. You must force yourself to read each word on the page, to slow down and to absorb each marking on the screen / paper. Like any other skill, it gets easier with practice and will soon become second nature.

Proof reading, in my opinion, is a bit like Marmite – many people love the process, others not so much. I find it enjoyable, although I am a stickler for the English language (My teenager says I’m the “Grammar Police” – extreme, but she may be right). I find the act of polishing mine, or others, work to create a refined, top quality document that the author can be proud of really satisfying. I love to be challenged – should that be a semi-colon? Will a comma work better? Maybe a full stop on second thoughts. I totally get that I’m a geek when it comes to this, but I’m OK with that. SPAG is my bag, man.

It is always worth investing a little extra time to ensure your work is perfectly polished and correct. It really can make a difference.

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