We’ve all been there. You’ve just submitted something important; an article, a proposal, an assignment, a thesis, and while giving yourself one last congratulatory read over, you see it. A mistake. Not just a mistake, a huge mistake. Right there in the headline.
It’s horribly frustrating, and we’ve all done it, but before you start swearing and wringing your hands, let’s take a look at the reason we can’t shake this problem. Studies show that your brain selectively edits information to make it more understandable to you, effectively cancelling out shonky word order or missing apostrophes in work you’ve done. We notice mistakes in the work of others because our brains do not automatically supply the correct information.
Problem is, incorrect spelling, grammar, and formatting looks unprofessional; it can compromise the impact of our work and the impression of our skills. There’s a whole industry built around minimising those errors, run by skilled professionals trading on skills honed over years until they become second nature.
As an editor and proof reader, my job is making sure a text flows easily and that any distractions, such as grammar errors etc. are eliminated to create a document that’s easy to read and understand. Since we don’t all have access to a specialist, though, here are some tricks the pros use to get a good result every time and improve your editing skills.
- Print it out. It’s almost impossible to catch every mistake on a screen, even an e-reader. When you read a document over on paper, some you didn’t even see onscreen will leap off the page at you.
- Use a contrasting coloured pen. This one might seem obvious, but if you’re marking up your page with a pencil, or a dark coloured pen, you might easily miss a comma or a full stop you’ve already marked when it comes to typing up the changes.
- Read it through first. If you read something, even your own work, for the first time, you are more likely to become interested in the subject matter, making it easy to miss mistakes. Read it a few times before you attempt an edit. If you catch an error or two, so much the better, but you’re able to focus more on detail when you’re not caught up in the content.
- Take it a line at a time. Lay a blank piece of paper over the rest of the text and focus carefully on only one line. Use a pen or a small ruler as a pointer to direct your attention to each individual word as you read it.
- Take your time. The more passes you make over a text, the more likely you are to catch the errors. Check it at least three times, slowly. If time allows, put it aside for a day or two before your final pass. Giving your mind some distance from what you’ve written will up your chances of seeing errors.
- Check your facts. If you have included statistics, quotes or names, double check to make sure they’re ok. Then triple check. It’s so easy to miss a letter or a number; the difference between 2% and 22% is enormous in real life, but just a keystroke away on a computer. Similarly, spelling names incorrectly can be a big faux pas, but it’s easy to do. Autocorrect sometimes changes an alternative spelling to the more common one without notification, so beware.
- Pay special attention to grammar. Especially verb tenses and contractions like your and you’re. If you aren’t sure which one to use, check. Nothing will make you look less credible than basic grammar errors. Computer spell checkers are notorious for letting these ones slip through the net, so going over it yourself is a must.
- Don’t forget to check images, fonts and headings. There’s no point in having perfect text if half your graph is hanging off the page. You’d be amazed how often this happens.
- Get a fresh pair of eyes. Yes that’s right. If someone else is more likely to notice a mistake, give it to someone else to look at. Have them read it over slowly, in hard copy.
- Don’t sweat it. Even if you think you’ve got every typo, chances are you’ll notice something, somewhere that you’ve missed. Don’t stress, no one begrudges the odd error, as long as you’ve got the big, embarrassing ones, you’re fine.
With these tricks in your arsenal you should have no problem turning out a polished, professional looking document, all ready to go. Good editing should be invisible, it should make the work flow better and focus attention on your information, instead of your presentation, so let your inner grammar-Nazi out to play.