Proofreading: a forgotten art

I’ve noticed that in today’s business world, which can best be described by the adjective “now!” (exclamation mark and all), it’s easier than ever to make typographical errors—or worse: missing words, spelling errors, improper subject-verb tense agreement and more. The pressure to respond instantaneously causes our brains to move faster than our fingers can comply. The result is sometimes embarrassing mistakes that at best look silly and at worst look unprofessional. Here are five ways to improve your proofreading abilities:

  1. Proofread. It’s striking how many people simply don’t bother to proofread at all. It’s type-type-type-type-send and your message is out there, errors and all. So begin improving on your error-catching ability by actually looking for errors.
  2. magnifying glassAsk for help. Beyond creating and responding to email, don’t proofread your own work. Have someone else do it. All too often our brains see what they want to see. They’ll insert words in your mind’s internal editor that you meant to put on the page, but never actually managed to. Having someone else proofread your work reduces the possibility of that happening. As an added bonus, your proofreader can tell you what they think about the content, too.
  3. Read your writing backwards. This helps to correct the brain’s tendency to insert small works like “in,” “an,” or “the” that are easily overlooked when the text is read forward, but jump out when it’s read backwards.
  4. Don’t rely on spell check, or worse: grammar check. “Sued” and “used” are two different words that are easy to mix up, and spell check won’t catch your mistake. Microsoft Word’s grammar check? Don’t get me started.
  5. Just walk away. Sometimes after creating a lengthy piece, the last thing you need to do is sit right down and proofread. Give the brain a chance to “cleanse its palate” for at least a few minutes, if not a few hours or overnight. There will be less chance of you reading what you meant to type when the material is not top-of-mind.

Above all, slow down. I’d like to think the 24-hour rule still applies to many of the e-mails we receive: a response sent within 24 hours is considered timely. Of course, many matters are more urgent, but not only is immediately responding to every e-mail that pops up in Outlook a sure path to mistakes, it’s bad time management and personal organization as well.

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