It’s a pretty typical morning. You start your day with a cup of coffee and a quick check of your email. You skim past the items destined for the trash and fall upon a message from a serious client. You spent the better part of two weeks working on her catalog copy, and gaining her approval could mean steady work, possibly a retainer. You open it. Your heart sinks…
“Please proof and resubmit by Thursday.”
Proofreading is our craft’s equivalent to washing the dishes after a fabulous eight course meal. It isn’t much fun, but neglecting it will leave you with an unmanageable mess. It could cost you the trust and respect of a paying client, not to mention a black mark on your reputation. The following steps will make this chore a lot less painless and render your clean-up operation highly effective.
Always use a text editor with a spelling and grammar checker
No, the standard spelling/grammar checker built into your word processing program is not infallible, but it’s a far cry better than trying to catch typos and comma splices with the naked eye in Notepad. Just remember that this tool has no sense of style. You may use grammar that is technically flawed for the sake of impact (What copywriter doesn’t?), so don’t let the machine do all the work for you.
It pays to educate yourself on how to customize this feature. It usually works right out of the box, but default settings are not always the most efficient. Read through the instruction manual that came with your software, or go to the company’s site and check for a downloadable .pdf.
Print out your work
Information on paper is absorbed differently than its digital counterpart. First of all, whether we intend to or not, we skim words on a computer screen. It’s just how we’re conditioned. There are also sensory and tactile differences between the two media that favor paper for intensive reading and long-term retention. Besides, many of the following proofreading techniques require the use of a pen and/or highlighter.
Just because it sounds the same…
Remember fifth-grade English? Homophones, if you recall, are words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Homophones like accept and except, groan and grown, and the granddaddy of them all, their, they’re, and there, are easy mistakes to make in the heat of composition, and monumental embarrassments when a client points them out.
Go back to your printed version and, with a highlighter or colored pen, mark every possible homophone. Even if you’re certain that you used the correct form, do it for the sake of consistency. Question your word choice in every instance; study the context surrounding the word. If you’re unsure of a particular homophone, bookmark http://www.homophone.com/index.php for quick reference.
Contractions and apostrophes
It’s is a contraction meaning it is. It’s is never a possessive pronoun! Burn this truth into your consciousness so you will always be on the lookout for apostrophes that don’t belong. Inserting unnecessary apostrophes happens since they are correct in possessive proper nouns and it’s easy for the brain to automatically associate the apostrophe with possession. But remember, you are composing in English, perhaps the most diverse and illogical language ever created. Take nothing for granted.
Have you ever seen the optical illusion of the young woman that turns into a crone when you change your perspective? I think of this parlor trick when I consider how punctuation affects the flow and tone of my writing. When I focus on the words, my mind creates an internal narrative that flows like a William Blake masterpiece, but when I shift my perspective to the grammatical mechanics I sometimes find stumbling sentences with vague, interpretive meaning.
When reviewing your first draft, shift your focus from the words and their intended meanings to the grammatical nuts and bolts that hold them together, and see if your writing changes from a beautiful maiden to a ghastly hag.
Read it backwards
Your brain knows what the text should say, so it tends to fill in blank spaces with words that aren’t there. As tedious as it may seem, reading your copy backwards from right to left beginning at the last word will help you catch gaps. Your brain will be forced to think about context and structure. Fortunately, you’re a copywriter and your pieces are relatively short. Imagine if you were proofing your own 450 page novel!
Imagine that your copywriting project is of a technical nature – say, an instructional manual for an industrial cement mixer – and you write the water to cement ratio as 100:1 instead of 1000:1. Oh what a disaster one little zero can cause!
Check your numbers, and then double check your numbers. Confirm their accuracy with your client and make sure the numbers in your copy reflect the information they provide. Why should we pay particular attention to numbers? Because we writers are word people. If you’re anything like me, you avoided math like the plague in high school and only took the bare minimum in college. Our brains aren’t wired for digits, so we need to make a concerted proofreading effort here.
Another set of eyes
Your wife, your husband, your teenaged kids… they are all qualified to give your copy the once over. You could do what I did and marry an English teacher, but this isn’t necessary. I just got lucky. You simply need a second set of eyes to catch the human errors that your weary eyes missed.
The second set of eyes you need could be yours, under one condition. Let the piece sit for a day or two before opening it again. A fresh perspective can do wonders for your powers of observation, but ideally, you want an impartial party to read over your copy. As the writer, you may be too emotionally involved in the project to offer perfect objectivity.
Think of proofreading as the scientific portion of your project. Honestly, there is nothing more impersonal and pragmatic than reading your copy backwards and painting a good portion of it with a highlighter. No, it isn’t much fun, but it could mean the difference between receiving an email that asks you to proofread your work, or one that simply thanks you for a job well done.
Tom Cholewa is a former military journalist and content manager in the digital signage industry. In 2012, job market trends and a genuine weariness of running the rat race prompted him to dive into the world freelance copywriting. The result of his career decision can be found at http://www.procopywriter.net
About Thomas Cholewa
Tom is the founder of procopywriter.net, an online advertising consultation and creative services firm. Tom has a professional background in Web design, copywriting, journalism, and editing