Here’s Something Every Writer Needs: Proofreading

You’ve written something – a novel, an email, an essay – and it’s important. Really important. So, before you hit send, I beg you: Proofread like your life (or job) depends on it.

Everyone makes mistakes. Unless you’re a reporter working on deadline, chances are you have the few extra minutes necessary to proofread and edit before your mistakes become public – and embarrassing.

My first job was as a newspaper copy editor. By the time stories got to me, they’d already been edited, so I was providing a final proofread. I caught lots of mistakes. I single-handedly stopped the newspaper from printing articles about “cork prices” (corn, corn, corn) and “barbecuing children” (make that chicken, please). I am sure I missed mistakes too, but none were as big and bad as these infamous proofreading fails:

Chalmers Roberts, who documented the history of the Washington Post, wrote about a headline the paper printed in 1940 on the first page of its early edition: FDR IN BED WITH COED. The President was actually in bed with a cold. The newspaper reportedly caught the mistake partway through the printing process and destroyed the offending copies before they were distributed.

In 2012, The (Centralia, Ill.) Morning Sentinel published this correction: “Due to a typing error, Saturday’s story on local artist Jon Henninger mistakenly reported that Henninger’s band mate Eric Lyday was on drugs. The story should have read that Lyday was on drums. The Sentinel regrets the error.”

Banner Travel Agency bought a $230 ad in its local Yellow Pages to promote its exotic vacations. Instead, thanks to a lack of proofreading, the ad touted “erotic” travel. In 1988, the Travel Agency successfully sued Pacific Bell for $10 million.

To ensure that your next email, tweet or blog post doesn’t contain the kind of error that makes it go viral for all the wrong reasons, follow these important steps:

1) Spellcheck. It’s a good first step, but it’s only a first step. Spellcheck doesn’t know whether names are correctly spelled and it doesn’t know if you’ve used the correct word. Use it, but don’t rely entirely on it.

2) Print it. Somehow mistakes you didn’t see on your computer or phone screen become glaringly obvious when they’re printed out. Take the time. Don’t just glance over the copy, really proofread it, line by line.

3) Read it out loud. Sure, you may sound loony if you share work space, but you’ll be amazed how many mistakes jump out at you when you hear them as well as see them. Reading aloud is also great for catching punctuation problems and words you’ve repeated over and over.

4) Get a second set of eyes on it. After you’ve done your first few read-throughs, ask a trusted colleague or friend to proofread your document, too. You know what the text is supposed to say. Someone who is not so familiar with it may find mistakes you’ve overlooked.

5) Double check names of people and places. You may spell Pflugerville or Skaneateles correctly the first time, but make sure those spellings don’t morph on the second or third mentions. When I worked for a newspaper in Iowa, Terry Branstad was governor. Within a single news article (pre-copyediting) I saw him referred to as “Brandstad,” “Branstand” and “Brandstand” – and his name isn’t even particularly difficult. Check, then double check.

6) Proofread everything. Reviewing body copy is important, but so are headlines, subheads, and captions. A mistake in the copy in an annual report is a sin; a mistake in a 72-point headline could be career-ending. And, just because your company always adds the same boilerplate template to the end of every news release doesn’t mean it’s error-free. Proofread it all.

7) Do the math. Anytime your work includes numbers, make sure they add up. If you say you’re going to offer “5 Quick Tips,” make sure there really are five tips. If you’re reporting on budgets or percentages, check and recheck your math.

8) Look at the big picture. If your copy is part of a newspaper,  newsletter or website, make sure the layout doesn’t create a mistake. Do articles continue on the pages they really say they continue on? Do links work? Even if everything in your copy is perfect, consider whether its placement is at all odd. A newsletter article about witches, for example, may make people shudder if it’s placed under a photo of your city council.

9) Walk away. Often deadlines don’t allow you to delay proofreading but, if you have the luxury of a little extra time, take advantage of it. If you finish a document a day early, wait to proofread until the next morning. Fresh eyes are more likely to detect errors. Even if you only have an hour to spare, get up from your desk and walk around. Clear your head before you dig back in to begin proofing. Time away really does make a difference.

10) Remember: Proofreading and editing are not the same. Proofreading catches typos, spelling errors and missing punctuation. Editing is more in-depth, focusing on content, structure, clarity and flow. Most writing will benefit from both.

If you’re a notoriously bad speller or you don’t know a colon from an ellipsis, hire a professional proofreader, editor or writer to do the work. The money you’ll spend is an investment in making sure you and your business are portrayed in the best possible light.

Stop Being Clueless About Communication

Some clients are clueless – at least when it comes to communication. And there’s a good chance you’re one of them.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re a small business owner or nonprofit manager or politician and you’ve got five minutes to spare, I can teach you what you need to know to make your communication efforts more effective.

This isn’t top-secret information and it’s not intended to eliminate the need to work with a professional communicator. Rather, it’s knowledge that will make your next meeting with a writer or public relations specialist more productive – because you’ll have a better sense of what you really want to say and to whom.

It all starts with S-M-C-R, a straight-forward model that describes how information is distributed. This timeless model can be applied to all forms of communication, from emails to TV commercials. Learning it can help guide all your future communication decisions. Write it down. Remember it:

Source – The creator of the message.

Message – The actual content or idea for the communication.

Channel – The medium through which the message is being sent.

Receiver – The person or group who receives the message.

The next time you think about web content or direct mail copy you need to have written, run it through this model. You can start the process by writing the letters S-M-C-R across the top of a sheet of paper. Then jot down what you know about your project beneath each of the letters. “S” is typically the easiest place to start; you have a message, so that makes you the source.

Next, it’s important to take a step back and figure out what you want to accomplish with the communication piece you’re having created. Do you want to:

  • Create awareness?
  • Educate about a trend or issue?
  • Introduce a new product or service?
  • Announce an event or promotion?
  • Attract new customers?

There’s a good chance that you want your email, brochure, or news release to accomplish several things – and that’s OK. Just try to limit yourself to two intended outcomes and then prioritize them so you’re certain your messaging does what it’s supposed to do.

Settling on an intended outcome can be the toughest part of the process. It’s OK to take a day or two to think about this before you proceed with their project. If you don’t know what you’re hoping to achieve with their new communication piece, it’s impossible to produce something that’s effective. The important take-away here is that a single communication piece cannot communicate everything to everyone. Focus is key.

Once you know what you want to accomplish with your new communication piece, you can begin to think about the “R” or receiver. If you run a nail salon and want to reward loyal customers with a coupon, your “R” is your current customer base. If you run a nonprofit that’s offering afterschool tutoring for middle school students, your “R” is likely the parents of middle schoolers. If you run an insurance company and you need to justify your request for a rate increase, your message must be targeted toward government regulators. Identifying your primary receiver will ensure your communication stays focused.

Next up, it’s time to focus on the “M” or message. What do you need to tell the receiver? It’s not important for you to come up with a polished and complete message – that’s what you’ll hire a communications professional to do. You simple need to capsulize the message in a sentence or two so that you’re prepared to tell the writer exactly what you want.

The last step in this process is to be sure you’re using the best “C” or channel to get the message to the intended receiver. Think through the pros and cons of various channels, from free news releases and web copy to paid radio spots and social media. Be realistic. Having great web copy is important but, if your goal is to attract new customers, how likely is it that they’ll just happen upon your site? It’s possible to share the same messages with the same intended receivers via two or more channels. Be open to guidance from the communications professional with whom you’re working.

Does knowing about the S-C-M-R model make you a bonafide communications pro? No, but it does better equip you to ask the right questions and make the right decisions. And it’s a sure step toward making sure you won’t be “clueless” again.

5 Reasons You Should Hire a Professional Writer

I’m a decent baker. I make pretty awesome chocolate chip cookies, but I’d never dream of baking a wedding cake. That takes real expertise.

So why are companies having “decent” writers create web and brochure copy? If you’re a geophysicist or a banker, go ahead and write your own emails and business letters. But when it comes to creating sales, marketing, editorial and web content, those things require expertise. Here are five reasons you should hire a writing professional:

  1. A pro can identify your communication needs. It’s not unusual for a client to call and say, “I need a brochure.” When I follow up with questions about what messages they want to include and what action they hope clients will take, I’m often met with a blank stare. They just want a brochure because their competitor has one. A professional writer will help you identify your message and the best channel – website, social media, brochure, article – through which to send it.
  2. Audience matters. Your basic message may be the same, but the way you need to say it will vary depending upon who you’re trying to reach. Are you talking to potential clients? Long-time customers? Vendors? Regulators or governmental officials? A communications professional can help identify your intended audiences and tailor-make messages for them.
  3. Sometimes you’re too close to the subject. For example, a real estate agent who sells a couple dozen homes each year, doesn’t think twice about terms like “amortization,” “adjustable rate mortgage” or “bridge loan.” But if you’re a first-time home buyer and you encounter a website filled with these foreign words and phrases, your heart will start to race and your anxiety level will rise. A professional writer can make even complex subjects easy to understand.
  4. Mistakes make you look bad. Sure, Spellcheck will catch a lot of errors, but it won’t stop you from using the wrong there/their or its/it’s. You may argue that no one is hiring a plumber or landscaper based on their spelling ability. You’re right. But people do want to hire someone who projects reliability and professionalism. Silly errors make you look amateurish.
  5. Efficiency matters. Unless your expertise is content creation, you’re liking spending far longer writing and editing than you should be. Wouldn’t your time be better spent doing your real job? You have processes and knowledge that allow you to get your job done efficiently and effectively. The same is true of professional writers. By hiring a pro, you’ll save time and money and end up with content that draws people in.