By: Christopher Fosse

Idiot Proof: How to Keep Your Written Content from Embarrassing You and Your Family

October 5, 2016

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Written language is a magical thing. Think about it—just by arranging predefined symbols in specific orders across a page, you can touch hearts, incite passions, spread humor, sway opinions, and possibly even convince unsuspecting email-users that you’re an exiled Nigerian prince. This is because writing has a way of getting past our defenses. It reaches us where we’re most willing to listen. It speaks to all parts of our inner selves in a voice that resonates through our very souls. And the magic of writing isn’t limited to the reader, either. As we put pen to page (or finger to keyboard), all of our beliefs and doubts, our fears and hopes and regrets—everything that defines us as living, feeling human beings—bleed out into our words as we write. We, in essence, give birth to ourselves.

And, often, the end result is just as screwed up as that last metaphor makes it sound.

The sad truth is that most of what we write absolutely sucks. Sure, we may see the occasional masterpiece of literature arise and redefine the human condition, and even less-esteemed media like blogs, advertisements, and social posts have the capacity for greatness. Even so, the sad state of modern writing has little to do with topic or medium; modern writing is subpar simply because people don’t know how to proofread.

Check Yourself before You Wreck Yourself

Proofreading is like taking that last look in the bathroom mirror before you head out the door; if everything looks good, then you can step back out into the world with confidence. If, on the other hand, you’ve left your fly down, you’ll be grateful that you bothered to check. Unfortunately, too many writers would rather just finish their business, wash their hands, and rush out of the lavatory of written content without giving everything a final once-over.

And that’s how we get things like this:

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Or this:

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Or, terrifyingly, this:

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You see? Thanks to the internet, you don’t have to create timeless works to have your mistakes live on forever. Proofreading is something that everyone could stand to become familiar with, no matter how skeezy your tattoo parlor might be!

Righting Writing Wrongs

Of course, recognizing the value of proofreading isn’t quite the same as knowing how to proofread. And while you’ll probably find quite a few errors just by performing a quick review of your work before publication, a true proofread involves a bit more effort.

Well, relax; you don’t have to be a trained copy editor to perform an effective proofread. All you need is patience, a retentive anus, and these easy-for-me-to-tell-you-to-follow tips:

    1. Read it aloud
      If you’re working on a computer (and let’s face it, if you’re reading this blog post, then chances are that you do most of your writing digitally), then you should have access to some sort of spell-check program. Your preferred word processor may also include a grammar-check feature. And while these kinds of programs are by no means infallible, the fact is that with these tools at hand, you’ll be able to avoid many errors that you might otherwise overlook. Still, no automated program can catch everything. That’s where an out-loud reading comes in handy.
      There’s a cadence inherent to language. You may not be consciously aware of that rhythm while you are writing, but the reader is definitely going to be aware of it once you’re done. Reading out loud can help you identify and follow that rhythm, so that your sentences sound natural. Additionally, hearing your text read aloud makes it easier to identify issues like run-on sentences, repeated words, abrupt transitions, parallelism problems, verb shifts, pronoun-antecedent disagreements, and more. And the most beautiful thing is that you probably won’t even have to know what most of those words even mean to be able to recognize and correct them when you hear them aloud.
    2. Read it backward
      Just as reading something aloud can help you get a feel for the overall language and structure of the document, it may also be worth your time to focus on the individual words themselves, divorced from any sort of ‘big-picture’ elements. One of the best ways to do this is by reading the piece backward.
      Go through the entirety of your document, sentence by sentence, starting at the very end and working your way to the beginning. This will help you see the individual parts that make up the whole, and give you a better shot at noticing any problems on the most basic levels.
      I’ll be honest with you, this particular method is a pain; it’s time consuming and boring, and after a few minutes of it, you’ll feel like you’re losing your mind. As such, I don’t make a habit of using it on every article I write. I mostly use it on the really important ones (such as any articles about proofreading).
    3. Search for Common Mistakes
      Do you have trouble with the difference between its and it’s? How about your and you’re? Everyone has their own little stumbling blocks when it comes to writing. By identifying these issues—particularly issues related to specific words or characters—you can have your word processor perform a search through your electronic document for any such examples. Then you can easily move from instance to instance, double checking for accuracy.
      I’ll give an example. Whenever I’m ready to publish an article, I perform a ctrl+f search through my document. What am I looking for? The cursed relic of the typewriter era—the double space (it looks like this:  ). I’ll let you in on a secret: I’ve been known to accidentally add an extra space between thoughts. And while the occasional double space would be difficult for me to spot on my own (it’s basically an invisible double helping of nothing), the built-in search program is able to do so instantly and accurately.
    4. Take a Step Back
      The worst time to proof your own work is right after you’ve written it. This is because the text is still fresh in your mind; instead of seeing what’s on the page, you’ll see what you intended to put on the page. The human mind is an interesting thing, and it has a tendency to see what it expects to see, regardless of the sort of information being fed to it through various sensory organs.
      On the other hand, if you can put a little time between writing and proofing, you’ll come back to the document with fresher eyes. You’ll be much more likely to see any errors that you might have otherwise overlooked.
      Of course, how long you wait between writing and editing is up to you. The choice will likely depend upon many factors (deadline being one of them). Get the most out of whatever downtime you have, by doing something that takes your mind off of your article, such as checking your social media feeds, making frivolous purchases online, or contemplating the futility of existance.
    5. Give It to a Friend
      The goal of a proofread is to help you see your work as a reader would see it. As such, there’s no better way to proofread than by dumping it onto someone else. And don’t worry; even if your proofreader is unfamiliar with advanced grammatical rules, they should still be able to identify problematic areas. Unclear meanings, disjointed transitions, logical fallacies, unwanted biases—these will be more clear to an objective observer than to the author. And should they have any suggestions about how to improve your work, so much the better. Remember, you don’t have to accept every revision suggestion they give you. That said, you do have to recognize those suggestions as valid. After all, this person is a part of your audience, and when they tell you that something doesn’t work for them, you should probably listen. Besides, if you don’t like their feedback, you can always passive-aggressively take it out on them when they ask you to return the favor.

Burden of Proofreading

Technology may be able to tell you when you’ve misspelled a word, but when it comes to ensuring that you are delivering the message of your writing effectively, there’s not a lot that it can do. Therefore, the burden of proofreading falls to you. Your writing—be it email, social posts, articles, or something more expansive—doesn’t have to suck. Learn to put yourself in your readers’ shoes, and when you do, you’ll be able to effectively birth yourself all over the minds and hearts of your audience.

Ugh. That metaphor really isn’t working, is it? Perhaps I should have done a more thorough proofread…

Written by Christopher Fosse on October 5, 2016

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