by Sheelagh Hughes
We’ve all seen them – a report referring to the pubic sector or the strain on local heath services. A daft press release that is, thankfully, not out the door yet. The Forward to the book …. oops!
The English language is tricky, not least because it’s full of homophones that lie in wait to trip people up – their, there, they’re, where, were, ware, led, lead, discrete, discreet – the list goes on.
And it isn’t just words that can get us into trouble. Remember the gun-toting pandas so brilliantly evoked in Lynne Truss’s book Eats, Shoots and Leaves? An errant comma did the damage there.
When you come across mistakes like this it makes you wince and at the same time inwardly rejoice that it didn’t happen on your watch.
But it could, and easily.
We’re all under pressure from deadlines and more work than we can fit into a working week. So we rely on Word’s spellchecker to flag up typos. However, it’s not much use when the ‘wrong’ word is a fine word in itself and of no interest to the spellchecker.
And rereading your report before you pass it up the line won’t save you either. You’ll see what you meant to write, not what you actually did.
Plan your proofread
What’s required to avoid an ‘oops!’ moment is a fresh pair of eyes and a systematic proofread. By systematic, I mean not a read from start to finish, but a check carried out in several passes. Here’s one way of doing it:
- Check the headings. Are they grammatically correct and all styled similarly (upper or lower case)? Do they have the same voice? For example, I’ve seen documents which use headings to ask questions but mix up the voice. So the first heading might be: ‘How you can get help with …’, but later headings change to ‘What do I need to do?’. Check also that the hierarchy is correct when there are several levels of subheadings.
- Review the Contents page. Do the headings given on the Contents page exactly match those in the document? This can be assured by generating an automatic table of contents, and remembering to update it if the headings are changed.
- Scrutinise the body text. Now it’s time to read the text. Slowly. Check not just for grammar and spelling but also for tense, punctuation, use of acronyms, accurate cross referencing, numbering of sections and validity of URLs.
- Examine bulleted lists. Along the way you might come across bulleted lists. Review them all at once to check they are styled the same way – for example, sentence case or lower case on each bullet point and punctuation.
- Check the captions. Go through the document checking the captions for images, tables and diagrams. Again, are they correct, all styled similarly and do they follow a common form of wording?
- Check appendices, bibliography or footnotes, if they are in your document. Do each as a separate pass.
Use a style guide
A lot of proofreading checks relate to consistency rather than correctness. That’s because there is more than one correct way to skin a cat, or, for example, write a date: 12 August 2017, 12th August, 2017, August 12th, 2017, 12/8/17.
To ensure consistency within your document, and across all the documents in an organisation, you need a style guide. This sets out the organisation’s rules about capitalisation, acronyms, dates, hyphenation, numbers and other content that can be presented in more than one way.
- Use of full stops in acronyms and abbreviations – yes or no? DOE or D.O.E.?
- Hyphenation of words: subtropical or sub-tropical? Multidisciplinary or multi-disciplinary?
- Numbers: written in words or numerals? 1, three, twenty-one, 42?
- Spelling: some words can be spelt with a ‘z’ or an ‘s’ – organization/organisation. The past tense of some words can take a single or double consonant – focused/focussed, benefited/benefitted.
- Capitalisation: are staff titles written as directors, executive officers and cleaners, or Directors, Executive Officers and Cleaners? Or indeed, Directors, Executive Officers and cleaners (which tells its own story).
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg; a good style guide can run to many pages.
To see an example of a comprehensive style guide, take a look at the Guardian newspaper’s: www.theguardian.com/guardian-observer-style-guide-a
Without a style guide it’s impossible to apply consistency across all documents coming out of an organisation. And it’s impossible to proofread effectively. A professional proofreader will be able to help you create a style guide for your organisation and, believe me, it’s worth its weight in gold in terms of time saved and frustration averted.
Spare your blushes
In 23 years as an editor I’ve seen and corrected some mighty bloopers, but as a writer I’m not immune to making them myself.
So let’s all avoid red faces by getting our work proofed by someone else, preferably a professional. Because when it’s too late for corrections, you’ll just have to grin and bare it … oops!
Sheelagh Hughes has over 23 years’ experience as a writer and editor in Editorial Solutions Ireland Ltd, and has carried out a wide range of editorial projects, including copy-editing and managing the production of academic books, copy-editing and proofreading government and research reports, corporate journalism, copywriting marketing materials and plain language writing and editing. She is a Full Member of AFEPI Ireland, a Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a member of EPANI and a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Connect with Sheelagh on LinkedIn or via the Editorial Solutions Ireland website.