What is it about autumn that brings out the proofreading projects? We’ve had lots of these recently; though we’re principally writers, we happily take on big proofing jobs, especially when there’s a technical element where our heritage as IT journalists comes in handy. A good proofreader can help you avoid the most common pitfalls, giving your document a professionalism that proves to readers you know what you’re doing.
If you’re proofing your own work, here are the six mistakes I see most frequently. I’m not covering spelling and punctuation problems here, by the way: I’m assuming that you’ll find those easily enough, and that you realise how badly those errors can undermine your document’s authority. This list is my level-higher proofing guidance, because there’s more to proofing than spellcheck:
1. Failure to follow instructions or to answer fully
If you’re writing a response to something – an awards application, for instance or a response to a tender – it’s vital that you follow the instructions. When we’re proofing a piece that’s a specific response, we try to verify whether what you’ve written is complete and truly answers the questions you’ve been asked. It’s easy to get caught up in your writing and neglect to check whether you’ve followed the guidelines carefully and included all the information requested. It doesn’t matter how well written your piece is: if you haven’t followed instructions, you’re in trouble.
2. Capricious capital letters
When I first studied German as a teenager I was intrigued to see all the capital letters: Nouns were treated as Things of overwhelming Importance, all graced with a capital Letter. I noticed them because we just don’t do this in English, where capitals are visually wearing on the reader. The eye gets tired when continually forced to pay extra attention to nouns that really don’t deserve such emphasis. Cut back on capitals, be strict with yourself, and ensure that – if more than one person is working on a document – everyone understands what is and isn’t capitalised.
3. Failure to set a comprehensive house style
Unless you have a house style document you follow religiously, your proofreading can easily go off track. As well as capitalisation, your house style governs the proofing language (Irish and UK English, or American English?) and what words are hyphenated (is it take-up or takeup?) – although any two-word adjective proceeding a noun should be hyphenated, such as “two-word” in this sentence. Your house style will also clarify how key terms, such as product names and the company name, should be written. You only need to look at LinkedIn to realise that an organisation’s own employees use wildly different spellings and capitalisations of the company name. Know the correct form and stick to it.
4. Failure to use Microsoft Styles
Don’t undertake a long document without using Microsoft Styles (or the equivalent in other word processing programs): it saves labour, improves consistency and gives the document a visual cohesion. Standard body copy should not be styled as Normal. Use the Body Text style instead; if you don’t like the default look and feel of Body Text, you can modify it (or indeed any style) to change features like font size, typeface and line spacing. If you latterly decide to modify the look of your document, you merely need to alter the chosen style and changes will automatically flow through the document to any text you’ve previously marked with that style, so you don’t need to manually update each piece of text. (And here’s why you shouldn’t use Normal style for body text – too many other styles are based on Normal, and if you were to latterly modify it, you might cause unpleasant ripple effects throughout your document, in places like footers or title pages). Your house style document should specify what fonts and sizes you use for body text, headings, bulleted text and tables.
5. Making ‘company’ plural
Please don’t give a company or organisation a plural verb. Trust me on this. By referring to your organisation in the plural, you may convey a sense of disunity, lack of cohesion, or stuffy aloofness. The singular tense removes all that: so, “the company is introducing…” is better than “the company are introducing…” You may refer to your organisation as “we” in your document, but don’t use “we” in the same sentence as “the company is…” because your reader will just get confused.
6. Wrongly numbered or missing figures and tables
It’s so easy to lose track of numbering in figures and tables, so take extra care; a document I proofed once had several table 9s, no table 11, and table 3 appearing before table 2 in the sequence. Use the “insert caption” feature in Microsoft Word to automatically and accurately number your figures and tables; then, at the end of your document, insert a list of tables and a list of figures to make sure that the numbering is correct and in order, and that no table or figure numbers are missing.
If you’re undertaking a a big writing project, have you set your house style document and ensured anyone working on it is adhering to it? What proofreading tips can you add to mine?
Sheila Averbuch is managing director of the content services agency ENNclick, with offices in Edinburgh, Scotland and Cork, Ireland. Find out how we can help you with your writing and editing project. Contact Sheila at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone +441875341583
Main image by Dubwise Version on Flickr