Once upon a time, when we committed a word to print, it may as well be set in stone. A writer would originate the article, report, story or publication on a typewriter. A different person would set type and compose the page. A third person would proof the page, and great iterations of typesetting and composition would occur to make the page “right,” then thousands of copies would be printed.
If a typo made it to the printed page, great agony would befall the entire organization, because no remedy existed once the communication was published. The error would persist for all eternity. If the brochure, report or proposal represented your company, it cast a shadow on your reputation.
Errors carry the same weight in today’s world. Once your reader has received the communication, he or she has access to your error. As I wrote last week in Send Zen, a mistake erodes credibility.
In Send Zen, I suggested that you read across the lines before sending a text, post or email. Send Zen is a two-second breath of “proofing” your bursts before sending. Today, I am going to give you a three-step proofing process that should be applied to any of your longer forms of communication.
Proposals, blogposts, letters, video presentations, slideshows and webpages are the currency of today’s communications. You can apply these proofing steps to each of them. An extra step can be applied to audio and video that I will tack on at the end.
Three steps to perfection
1) Upper left to lower right: Without “reading” the words, scan the page from the upper left to the lower right. In this scan, you’re looking for widows (paragraphs that end with less than 25 percent of the line) and obvious errors.
2) Bottom up: Now you are reading, but you are making sure you read every word. Start at the bottom right and “read” backwards, looking at every word on the page. Make sure you get all of the words – copyright, captions, text, subheads and headlines. Every word, one word at a time. This is how you find misspellings.
3) Word for word, sentence for sentence: The third step is the most obvious one, but it is important not to do it quickly. Read every sentence, then read every word in the sentence. People who grew up “mouthing” as they read actually have an advantage here – they are pronouncing the words as they read them. This is where you catch incomplete sentences, syntax errors, improper word usage, style violations – all the little things that make the difference between good writing and bad writing.
Take your time
People who proof their own writing (like this writer) have a tendency to “float” over their own work. We think we are error free – we write one word at a time. With all that backspacing and correcting, it must be perfect, right? Very wrong. I don’t care how close you are to deadline, do the proof.
If possible (it isn’t going to be possible for this column – I’m writing on deadline), wait until the next morning to proof your work. Good writers will tell you – the best writing is rewritten before it is sent.
Also, if possible, get someone else to read/proof your work. I am very fortunate to have Cat Lee, my partner, and Iris Dimmick, the Rivard Report managing editor, looking at my columns before they are published. I feel fortunate even when we disagree. Honestly.
When I direct video, I “proof” the scene before we record. I look at a monitor, usually an HD monitor with a standard definition “frame” indication, scanning from upper left to lower right, then all four corners, then the overall scene composition. You’re looking for lighting errors and, most importantly, any distracting visual elements.
Then, as the recording proceeds – and this also applies to audio – listen for the bites. Corporate testimonial involves a real person telling a real story without a script in hand. That scene will be edited into a concise, clear statement. So, as you record, you’re listening for those bites. Sometimes, you need to construct the sentence – out of material the person has related in the first, rambling, recorded conversation – and “feed” it back to the subject, asking them to “say again” that “great thing they said.”
Upper left to lower right and word for word proofing is just as vital in audiovisual communications as it is in print. We don’t want to look bad, we don’t want to sound dumb. We want to be the very best we can be, presenting our product, our company and ourselves to the audience.
You don’t have to…
You don’t have to proof your work. You can just write it and send it. But a good, solid proof will make your work more accurate, clearer and validate your credibility. It also feels good to make every word count.
San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford is half of Extraordinary Words, providing effective communications for business and non-profit development. You can find Extraordinary Words on Facebook, LinkedIn and its website. You can read more of gary’s writing on his personal blog and by following his column “Every Word Counts” here on the Rivard Report.