You’ve worked long and hard on your article, newsletter, press release, promo brochure or report. Now it’s time to move your baby off your screen and into the world. Not so long ago your baby would have gone either onto a printed page or onto the Web. These days, your words will probably head for both. Even materials such as newsletters, white papers, reports and advertorials that are first published on paper are quite likely to be reprinted, archived or otherwise reused on the Web, perhaps even as an audio file or podcast. People may even blog about your content.
What does this mean for you as a business communicator?
First, it means that the audience for your written words has expanded exponentially during the past few years. At the same time, as all of us are expected to do more with less support, you are likely to be the final—or the only—person who will review your work before it goes public.
Second, it means that your work must be as flawless as possible, or else it will reflect badly on your abilities and, worse, on your company’s or client’s products and services.
All of which leads us to one highly underrated function: proofreading.
You may think of proofreading as checking for misspelled words, missing punctuation and a wrong paragraph indent or two. It is, but it’s also more than that. And, unless you’re lucky enough to have had a copyeditor and fact-checker go over your work before it reaches final form, proofreading can also mean copyediting and fact-checking. Very often, you have no “original” to check against, except your own work.
So, do you use “Web site” or “web site” or “website”? Is “voice mail” hyphenated? Should you write “President Lincoln” or “president Lincoln”? Should you use “5” or “five”? Do you need to spell out “percent” or is it okay to use the symbol? And on and on.
Steps in proofing
- Adopt or develop a style manual. Many companies and clients have a preferred style; find out whether yours do. If not, suggest one, and make a style sheet specific to the company for items that are not shown. Some examples of a style manual are the Associated Press Stylebook, the Chicago Manual of Style and the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, but there are many others, including some that are specific to fields such as education, medicine and psychology. Often, both the print and online editions are available.
- Agree on a dictionary. Your company or clients may not care which dictionary you use, but you should use one dictionary consistently. Use it for spellings and hyphenations that your style manual doesn’t cover. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, and Oxford Essential Dictionary, American Edition, are popular sources. Merriam-Webster can be accessed free online at www.m-w.com. Technical terms can be checked at http://whatis.techtarget.com and www.webopedia.com.
- Check for the obvious. Among the obvious are mistakes in grammar and punctuation, missing quotation marks, duplicate or missing words, footnote numbers with wrong or missing footnotes, and capitalization of job titles.Should you use your computer’s spelling and grammar checker? Definitely, as long as you don’t rely on it to find all your errors. Also, the grammar checker may not be correct for the specific wording you’re using, so you have to know what you’re doing. It’s also a good idea to recheck spelling and grammar with a second review. (In MS Word, go to Tools, click Options, Grammar and Spelling, Recheck Document, OK. Then go to Tools, Spelling and Grammar again, and Word will often check items it did not question the first time. It can be a revelation.)
- Find the elusive errors. The names of people and companies are often misspelled or not used correctly. Should there be a capital letter in the word (think “PowerBook” or “iPod”)? If you’ve quoted someone more than once, is his or her name spelled the same way each time? If you’ve listed a contact e-mail or phone number, did you check to be sure they’re right? If someone’s address appears in the piece, is the ZIP code correct for that city? If “Leslie,” say, is quoted and then mentioned as “she,” did you check to see that Leslie really is a female? If your article cites the work of four authors, are four names actually given?
- Check the facts. If the memo says that your company or client had a 16 percent increase in sales last year, pick up the phone and call your finance department or other authoritative source and check. Better to be a pest than to publish the wrong figure. If your client’s promotional piece says that 50 million people died during the 1918 flu epidemic, check it on the Web. Use a source that’s authoritative, such as a web site ending in .gov (government), .edu (educational institution), or the company’s own site, rather than relying on Wikipedia, which anyone can add to and edit.
- Read it again. When you’re finished and satisfied that everything is correct, print out the piece and read it one more time. You’ll be amazed at what jumps out at you during the last go-round.
What to proofread?
Although we’ve talked here about proofreading newsletters, reports, news releases, promotional materials and advertorials, you should also proofread your e-mails, memos and letters. In fact, anything that goes out over your signature needs to be checked for accuracy and correct use of the language. Why? Because it speaks volumes about you! Poor grammar, bad spelling and muddy meanings destroy your credibility with bosses, customers and clients. Even your friends may hesitate to recommend you for jobs or assignments if you come across as sloppy and unprofessional.
Paying attention to these guidelines will ensure that your messages won’t embarrass you and make your boss and your readers cringe.