Unless you work as a professional writer, proofreading probably crosses your mind as much as taking a space shuttle to Mars does. But, just because grammar and prose aren’t important to you – or in your job description – doesn’t mean they’re not worth your attention.
After all, communication is paramount in every organization. How you communicate with your team members, customers, vendors and, yes, the public contributes to your company image and reputation. It also helps define your own personal brand as a leader and thought leader.
So even if pumping out content isn’t your daily M.O., proofreading needs to be. Here are three editing tips everyone should know, and implement, with every written document that you write or finds its way to your desk.
Never proofread on an island.
We mean this metaphorically, but it’s probably also a good idea to avoid editing documents on an actual island. After all, the Pina Coladas and dreamy ocean views are sure to interfere with your accuracy. But, we digress. What we actually mean is to make sure you don’t proofread your own writing yourself. This is a fast path to mistakes.
The reasoning is that you wrote that company memo you’re planning to share with your team, or that quote you’re going to give to a journalist. So when you go to re-read it, your brain has a tendency to skim through it. You know what you meant to write, so you unintentionally fill in the gaps or gloss over typos. It’s not just you, either; everyone does this.
So, step one to proofreading like a pro is to invite someone else to the party. Don’t let any written materials find their way into the ether without first making sure at least one other person has given it a read. The same goes for proofreading someone else’s work; the more eyeballs on it, the better.
Read it out loud and backward.
…and maybe while balancing on your head, for good measure. Just like our brains are quick to be forgiving when we read our own work, they also have a tendency to be like your mom and applaud every word you put on paper.
If you go through your own document with the intention of editing, your sentence flow is probably going to sound awesome. Your word choice? Incredible. The analogies you used in every other sentence? Yep, crushed those too. Reading something you wrote silently doesn’t get you anywhere with proofreading. You need to unlock the doors and let it out into the wild blue yonder in order to see it for what it really is.
So, first read it out loud. Of course, this works best if you’re in the privacy of your office or home, so you don’t get a lot of unwelcome stares. But that part is up to you. The key is that when you read something aloud, you can hear whether the sentence flow really works and whether any parts feel awkward or cumbersome.
Then, read it backward. Seriously. Start with the last sentence and then move to the previous one and so on until you get to the first sentence of the piece. It’ll feel weird, but it helps to keep your brain from filling in coherent sentences where there aren’t any and helps you identify errors more easily.
Be a style and accuracy detective.
Finally, to what style will your document need to adhere? If it’s anything press-facing or in the PR world, it must be written in AP style. If it’s a book, it’s usually expected to be Chicago style. If it’s for your company blog and no one cares about styles, then great! Enjoy the freedom. But just make sure you know if it is supposed to follow certain rules and if the answer is yes, that it actually does.
Side note: Your PR team should always check for AP style misses and a book editor would keep you on track with Chicago style tweaks, but you still would benefit from knowing the basics. It always helps if you understand some of the key stylistic components of the style you need to use. This way, you won’t be going back and forth on suggestions with your PR team and will understand why things should be written a certain way.
Also, zero in on numbers, stats and other hard figures like they’re clues to a mystery. Anything you cite should be fairly recent (within the past year ideally), and should credit the original source if possible. Make sure you’re citing the source and that anything you reference has been accurately captured. Otherwise, this damages your credibility and could even result in a not-so-friendly letter from some other company’s legal team (not likely, but it is possible).
So, there you have it. Practice these three proofreading tips and you’ll elevate your written work from passable to professional. Better yet, it will reinforce your brand’s reputation in a positive way and position you in the best possible light. Words have that power, and more.