I’ve witnessed many changes in my career, and one of the most disturbing is a dramatic increase in the number of typos and other mistakes in materials produced by companies and organizations. I believe it’s the result of three factors: an emphasis on haste, a reliance on spellcheckers in software, and creeping ignorance about spelling and language.
So are mistakes really a big deal? They can be. I remember when NASA lost a $125 million spacecraft because one of the teams working on it used metric measurements while another used inches and feet.
Granted, the mistake you or someone at your company makes may not result in the loss of a spaceship or a life, but mistakes can create everything from small inaccuracies to serious problems.
For example, typos may seem harmless, but they carve away at your company’s hard-earned reputation. The best analogy I’ve encountered is that of the handsome, well-dressed gent who comes to sell something to you. His hair and teeth are perfect, his eyes a deep crystal blue, his Armani suit appears to have been sewn precisely for his frame, and his silk tie could hang in the Louvre. But there in the middle of that tie is a glob of brown mustard that dribbled from his lunch. Long after you forget his smile, his suit, and what it was he was trying to sell you, you’ll remember him as that guy with the mustard. That, my friend, is what typos do.
The sad thing is typos and other mistakes are so easy to prevent. The best way to keep them from embarrassing you is to become better at proofreading. You just have to devote some extra time and effort to the process. The challenge with proofreading is that your brain knows what the words are supposed to say, so it thinks what you’re seeing is correct. By taking a few simple steps, you can trick your brain and become a remarkably effective proofreader.
Time and focus. The most important way to get better is to concentrate on the task at hand. Devote your full attention to what you’re proofreading and remove distractions. Give yourself the time you need — rushing isn’t conducive to a careful review.
Don’t rely on spellcheckers. Those handy spellcheckers and grammar-checkers are amazing tools, but they aren’t enough. They can’t always tell you if you’ve inserted the wrong word, or if you’ve dropped in the wrong form of a homonym (such as there, their, and they’re). And grammar-checkers aren’t always correct, particularly where subject-verb agreement comes into play.
Print it out. For some reason, it’s easier to see mistakes when they’re on a printed page than when they’re on the screen. It’s also easier to mark possible mistakes so you can check them later and verify that you’ve made the correction.
Read forwards and backwards. After you’ve read through the words, go to the very end and read it backwards, one word at a time. Yes, it’s a slow, tedious process, but it makes it easier to concentrate on individual words.
Block the next line. Our minds tend to read ahead, taking our concentration away from the current line. Blocking the following lines with a ruler or blank sheet of paper will improve your focus.
Read it aloud. Reading what’s been written out loud accomplishes two purposes. First, it’s a particularly effective way to spot mistakes. Just as important, it helps you identify sentences and wording that may be awkward or uncomfortable. If it’s hard to say aloud, or if you find yourself running out of breath, you may want to reword it.
Find a proofreading buddy. It’s always easier for someone else to spot mistakes in your work, so enlist a co-worker to look over your stuff, and do the same for him or her. Both of you may be able to make suggestions to improve the other’s work, too.
Don’t ignore the familiar. When we proof, we tend to ignore things that are familiar — our company’s name, addresses, phone numbers, and the like. But those are places where mistakes are common. Transpose two digits of your company’s phone number, and someone else will get the calls that should be coming to you. Always give that information an extra review.
Read it again later. After you’ve proofread something, set it aside and look again an hour later or the next day. Taking a break clears your brain and dramatically improves the chances you’ll spot a mistake you missed earlier.