Outbound communications are the way in which we get our messages to existing and potential customers, so making sure they don’t include any errors, by proofreading thoroughly, is vital to your customers’ perceptions of you.
You don’t want to be the company which sent out the flyer which came through my door, which both mis-spelt benefits and mixed up pours and pores.
Nor the major supermarket which was mocked on social media after producing bespoke carrier bags for their new Isle of White (sic) store, which had to be re-done with the correct Isle of Wight spelling.
However careful you are, unless you take time with your proofreading, it is easy to miss something. This is because our brains often read what they think is there, not what is actually written. We have all seen examples of this where we can read sentences in which the words have mixed up letters or where letters are completely missing. It is an amazing ability, but it is a definite hindrance when trying to check copy.
Properly proofreading everything you send out is vital and the following tips can help you ensure you don’t have errors in your communications.
Firstly, something you shouldn’t do
Whilst helpful in picking up typos, don’t rely on the IT package you’re working in to spot all errors. Not only can the package change the meaning of your sentence with autocorrect, it can miss things too. I discovered this to my embarrassment when asked by email if I had reviewed a particular document. My reply should have said that “I haven’t looked at it yet”, but the reply I actually sent said something completely different. My fingers had put a space in the wrong place… so rather than saying what I wanted, it said “I haven’t looked a tit yet”. The words still made sense, so the IT package didn’t flag it for review. The snappy reply from the recipient was “Well you have now”!
So, what should you do?
- Take a structured approach, it will make it easier to pick up mistakes.
- Because of the way we read things on a screen, you’ll find it easier to proof something if you look at a printed version. This also helps you to see how colours and images look in print.
- Reading the text aloud is a useful step and can help you spot errors, particularly in relation to overuse of words and phrases.
- Proof any document several times, focusing on different aspects each time.
- Use a checklist of things to review, such as the one outlined below.
- When you think you are done and everything is correct, proof it one last time by asking someone who hasn’t been involved in writing or creating the piece it to review it. They will find it easier to pick up errors reading it for the first time than you will reading it for nth time.
Things to check:
Use a dictionary if you are unsure of anything. If it is an on-line dictionary, make sure you are using UK not American spellings.
Check words that are frequently misused, such as compliment/ complement. If you still can’t decide which version is correct, rewrite the sentence to avoid using that word.
Watch out for mixed up letters in words, particularly those regularly confused by your fingers and which are still spelt correctly e.g.: quiet/quite; form/from. We all have some words which our fingers seem to regularly spell incorrectly. Be aware of which words those are for you and always check them closely.
Remember spell checkers don’t usually check words which are capitalised, so pay close attention to these.
Sense and choice of words:
Some words sound the same but mean something completely different, such as stationary/stationery; to/too; pair/pear. Make sure you are using the word which ties in with what you want to say.
Check for repetitive use of the same word or phrase used close together, they make the text less interesting to read. Use a thesaurus to select alternative words or phrases or rewrite a passage to remove the duplicates.
Watch out for very long sentences, which can become confusing for readers. This is particularly important if you are writing search engine optimised copy for a website. Try to keep sentences under 25 words but don’t be bound by that if it makes sense to use more.
Punctuation and spacing:
Check for the most common mistakes with apostrophes, for example: ‘it’s’ only ever means ‘it is’; ‘they’re’ only ever means ‘they are’; their and they’re – is one which predictive text often gets wrong.
Watch out for punctuation which can change what you meant to say, for example: Don’t forget your rubbish / Don’t forget you’re rubbish.
Use a grammar checker if you are unsure about the correct punctuation
In typeset text, such as for brochures and flyers, watch out for words split over 2 lines with a hyphen, this never looks good to the reader.
Check for stray punctuation which has become detached from a word and left floating.
Also check for sentences which have become separated from the paragraph they should be attached to, usually at the top or bottom of a page.
Facts and numbers:
Always recheck that phone numbers are correct and in the right format for the market – including the international dialling code if appropriate.
With statistics, as well as checking the number, make sure that you have the right scale.
Spell checkers won’t check the name of an individual or place, so make sure you do. This is something you definitely need to get right.
Check against your style guide if you have one:
A style guide will tell you the conventions which your organisation likes to use to ensure consistency in communications. They are particularly important when you have different people writing for the same company. Style guides can cover things like:
- use of symbols vs words, for example: & or and; % or percent
- when to use a number and when to write a number in words
- use of titles – Ms, Mr, etc. – when giving people’s names
- when and how it is acceptable to use abbreviations and acronyms
- standard styles for date and time
If you don’t currently have a style guide and think one would be helpful, then a great example is the Cambridge University Style Guide. This provides useful help with aspects such as when to use ‘who’ and ‘whom’, when to use ‘who’, ‘that’ and ‘which’.
Good luck with your proofreading. Hopefully by using these checks you won’t end up, like me, ‘looking a tit’!