Proofreading is a topic that, in the over-saturated world of marketing blogs, is relatively sparsely covered.
This is chiefly because if you write something telling people how to spot mistakes in their writing or grammar and happen to make a mistake in your writing or grammar then you will look somewhat foolish, particularly in the unflinching gaze of the internet.
However, I’m here to stick my digital neck on the line in order to impart some of the proofreading wisdom I have accrued over years of writing. If you do spot any mistakes, just put it down to postmodernism. Alternatively, leave me a smug comment below telling me what an idiot I am.
If you’re writing for a variety of different publications or businesses, you’ll never know what kind of de facto editor you’re working for when you first start out.
You might have someone who’s inattentive and will publish your egregious error for the whole world to see. Or, you might have such a stickler for the English language and all its baffling idiosyncrasies that your post never sees the light of day, you’re blacklisted and forced into a seedy life of selling your copy on the street.
In short, being able to proofread your own work is a vital skill that all copywriters (and marketers in general) should possess, but it’s one that’s easier said than done.
Microsoft reckon that the backspace is the third most commonly used key, which may come as a surprise, particularly to those of you that touch-type. What’s actually going on is that your brain often knows a mistake has been made instantaneously, and so we automatically correct ourselves, sometimes without even realising that we’ve done so. Subconsciously, we’re programmed to think we think we’ve already flushed out every error.
Combine this with the fact that most marketers suffer from at least a small degree of hubris and believe their writing to be virtually infallible and you’ve got a recipe for grammatical disaster.
Here are five tips to help you turn in faultless copy, every single time.
1. Segment your editing procedure
If you’re anything like me, what you first write invariably ends up being a far cry from what you end up submitting. Personally, I try to get my head down and get a rough first draft finished without any looking back in order to make sure every idea I have is saved in some form or another.
Then I enter the re-drafting phase, where I read over what I’ve got, see how it scans, what works, what doesn’t, what can be moved around and all that jazz. Crucially, I never actively look for spelling or grammatical errors here. Often one or two will jump out at you, but the really tough to spot ones can remain buried for now.
Once I’m happy that I’ve said what I want to say, then I enter the final phase of editing. Having re-drafted to my heart’s content, now I have no excuse to skim over any lines or lose focus on what I’m looking for. Without separating these two distinctive editing phases out, there’s simply too much to go on. If it’s a choice between adding a lexical flourish or an irresistible analogy rather than double checking that you’ve spelt “stop” right, there’s only ever going to be one winner:
Now, I’ll go into exactly how I approach this final editing phase to make sure that every filthy mistake is exterminated, like some sort of dictionary-mad Dalek.
2. “In space, nobody can get ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ confused”
Breaking up dense blocks of text does wonders for how much easier it becomes to spot mistakes, not to mention generally being good practice when writing for the web.
In a similar vein, one nifty trick is adjusting your margins or page size between editing phases. Doing this allows you to spot instances of that classic mistake of leaving in repeated words if the first ends a line and the second begins the next.
3. Read like a 5 year old
It’s an age old marketing truism that the best copy can transcend every obstacle put in its way, age included. If you’ve come up with a value proposition that’s simple enough for a 5 year old to understand yet still works on the target audience, you’re onto a winner.
In fact, one of the most respected marketers around, AJ Kohn, went so far as to name his site Blind Five Year Old in honour of this concept.
In this case, I’m not referring to how your copy should read, but how you should read your copy. I’ve yet to find a better way of picking up mistakes than approaching proofing as your five year old self would reading anything:
Read out loud and read every single word.
As I mentioned earlier, our brains are hardwired to pick up mistakes, and they’re also designed to skim read. You will no doubt have seen that old copy & paste text that does the rounds on Facebook every now and then wehre eervy wrod is jmbelud up and yet you can still read it.
That same part of the brain is like the devil sitting on your shoulder as your proof, egging you on, “Go on, assume the next bit says “as far as we know” and not “as far we know”, you know you want to.”
It’s these everyday phrases comprising of easy, short words where we’re
most likely to make a mistake, and it’s these phrases that we’re most likely to skip over.
As an added bonus, this step can also be great for improving copy.
4. Give yourself a break between editing phases
This almost goes without saying. If you read the same thing repeatedly in quick succession, your innate tendency to skim-read and assume you’ve got everything – not to mention fatigue – will mean it’s even more likely that you’ll miss something.
5. Don’t rely on digital spell checkers
Finally, it’s important to remember that while spell checkers are becoming ever-more advanced, they still have their limitations.
Some, like the one in Word, are extremely hot on picking up errors, while the one in Google Docs is capable of judging intent and then highlighting where it thinks you’ve gone wrong, even if you’ve spelt the word correctly.
However, remember that there’s no guarantee of every error being picked up, and there’s no substitute for the human eye when it comes to combing over the work.
It’s also worth noting that you shouldn’t blindly follow spell checkers – they’re not infallible. If they’re making a suggestion, look at it and review. At the very least, you’ll see where you’ve gone wrong and be less likely to make the same mistake again.
Images courtesy of Road Highways Agency,