It was a good newsletter, I thought. “You spelled his name wrong,” he said.
He was the editor of one of the city dailies who volunteered on our editorial advisory committee. Throwing my newsletter down on the table, he stabbed his finger at the caption under the front-page picture. It was a photo of our city’s very popular mayor (who later became our province’s very popular premier).
It was my first communications job, for a business association in a certain western city known for oil companies and the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.
Remember the rule: “i” before “e” – except after “c,” and when it sounds like “a” as in “neighbor” and “weigh.” Also, when it comes after “KL” and before “N,” as in “Ralph Klein.”
That was 30 years ago and the look of disdain on that editor’s face still stings. But I learned a valuable proofreading rule that day: always, always double- and triple-check names.
Sometimes, proofreading is a lot like slapping mosquitoes on a hot summer day. No matter how hard you try, some of the little suckers get through and draw blood. While there’s probably no way to get all of them, all of the time (there being no perfection in this world), there are some tricks to get close:
- Double- and triple-check all names (yes, we covered this). It’s the difference between having your piece adorn people’s refrigerators or your portfolio, or going to an early grave in the recycling bin.
- Pay attention to your computer’s spell checker. It’s easy to skip over that demure red underlining as you read through your document. Always use your spell checker; never trust it – it’s only the first line of defense.
- Print it out, read it aloud. It’s a good excuse to get out of your chair and pace, even if your colleagues voice concern for your safety as you walk, mumbling to yourself, past the stairs.
- Take your time, even when there isn’t any. Remember the old saying, “if you don’t take time to do it right, you’ll have to find time to do it over?” Truth. It’s tempting to rush when deadlines are snapping at your neck. Take a deep breath, focus. Let’s do this right.
- Check the stuff that’s not part of the story. Check phone numbers, email addresses and URLs against an authoritative source. Type the URLs into your browser to ensure they take you to the right website. Make sure the numbers in the Table of Contents match up with the pages they point to. You get the idea.
- Look for what’s missing. Perhaps the hardest part of proofreading is spotting what isn’t there but should be. Look for non-sequiturs, sentences that raise questions without providing answers, that make you say, “huh?”
- Find the eagle-eyed among you. They may live in unexpected domains. A colleague of mine found hers in the accounting office. Turns out one of their numbers people was a near-perfect proofreader and a dab hand at composition to boot, capable of not only identifying the occasional misplaced comma and spelling error, but of reading for sense, flow and power.
This is, of course, by no means an exhaustive list. What are your favourite tips for creating squeaky-clean copy?