The meeting room is booked and you’re waiting for your clients to arrive. The reception is strangely quiet and no-one turns up. It’s a mystery.
After 15 minutes, you resort to re-reading the invitation you sent out, and a horrible realisation dawns on you: instead of writing ‘there will now be a meeting’, you wrote ‘there will not’ be one.
Such a costly mistake is down to a simple slip of the fingers that could have been picked up through proper proofreading, of course. But such a simple-sounding process is not so simple to get right unless you know the proper techniques.
Love is blind
As the writer of a document, it’s harder to spot any errors in it. You know what you meant to say, and so your brain will conveniently skip over missing words, typos and jumbled sentences. For this reason, it’s always best to get someone else to proofread your work. But even then, if your colleague doesn’t have a toolkit of proofreading techniques, they can wade through your words without really improving your work.
Whether you’re writing for an internal or an external audience – you need to make sure that your writing is accurate. This means always checking your work (and that of others) thoroughly. A speedy skim before you hit the send button or distribute a document will rarely be enough.
It is one thing for your colleagues or clients to snigger over a humorous typo and quite another to find yourself in legal or financial hot water because of an overlooked error. So follow the tips below to make sure your business writing says what you want it to.
Seven ways to proofreading success
- Print out a hard copy while proofreading on screen. Arm yourself with two copies. It’s likely that errors will stand out in one version even if you’ve glided over them in the other.
- Ensure the document makes sense. Correcting grammar and punctuation can often seem to be the point of proofreading. But your top priority should be ensuring the document is readable. If it’s difficult to understand, change it. Remember, plain English is best, so weed out all the complicated words and replace them with no-nonsense alternatives.
- Use your computer spellchecker. But remember that Bill Gates doesn’t have all the answers. Your spellchecker doesn’t read for sense, only accuracy – it doesn’t know whether you mean mountain ‘peak’ or ‘peek’. So don’t be a slave to it. Always use a dictionary if you’re not sure.
- Use a pencil to point to every single word. Scientists have found that in normal reading we don’t scan every word. Instead, our eyes move in little jumps, fixating on key words. Using a pencil and ruler slows your brain down.
- Check the title or headline. It’s easy to overlook the most obvious thing on the page and get bogged down in the details. Also, make sure the title is relevant to the document.
- Check telephone numbers by calling them. It’s surprisingly easy to transpose numbers when writing them. Misplacing one digit can ruin a marketing campaign, for instance. Don’t waste valuable time and money by sending out documents with incorrect phone numbers.
- Make sure you’re not the only person to read the last proof. If the document is important and you’re the only one who’s seen it, hold fire until you can get a second pair of eyes to see it. Show your colleagues these proofreading tips and make sure they follow each one before giving you the go-ahead.
Getting to the good stuff
You now have a beautifully proofread piece of work that’s grammatically correct, accurate and makes sense. But unless it’s written in a punchy style, you can’t guarantee that your readers will sit up and take notice. The next step is to read through and make sure that every word counts. For instance, you may be able to squeeze a whole paragraph into a short newsletter item simply by removing wasteful words here and there. Change ‘It was some time in the long hot summer of 1976’ to ‘In the summer of 1976’ for example. Unless you’re writing a novel (or a piece about the weather), you can take out the adjectives.
Your readers will thank you for getting to the point. And if you improve your colleagues’ work, they’ll no doubt be grateful that you’ve helped them shine. Just make sure you get someone else to proofread your handiwork!
Take heart though because some small errors will always slip through. So, if you’ve done the writing equivalent of skidding on a banana skin, dust yourself off with pride. The meeting can wait – practising your proofreading can’t.
Robert Ashton is the Chief Executive of Emphasis.
From proofreading to document structure, the active voice to keeping it short and simple, we can help you write better documents. See our courses for individuals or our courses for groups. Alternatively, send us a message or call one of our friendly advisors on +44 (0)1273 961 810