As a copywriter with a long innings who is still at it, I have been involved in the writing and, more important, the production of hundreds of communications – advertisements, brochures, scripts and website content, to name the most relevant for the topic.
Agonizing over copy errors
In the early days of my career, I had agonized over the possibility of copy errors creeping into my work, after an ad I had written had been sent to the publication or when a brochure was being printed. The ad appears in print and the first copies of the brochure are delivered. AND… there are no mistakes! Wow! Although I had taken great care and gone over the copy many times, I had to live with the anxiety and tension until I saw the real thing as my client would see it.
The perfect approach to proof-reading
With the passage of time, the anxiety developed and remained on the eve of the birth of a thing in print, but at much lower levels. Early on, though I nearly always (as I remember now) came to eventually discovering that I had proof-read my copy right, I did not follow any disciplined, defined way of proof-reading. Later on, I devised a method applying which I could ensure that my proof-reading would be perfect – well, at least 99.9999 per cent.
Perfect Proof-reading – 4 layers of checking, correcting and improving
Perfect cooking involves perfection in every step. One imperfect step will definitely lead to imperfect cooking. Perfect proof-reading is no different. Here are the steps:
Look for mistakes in tense. For example, if it reads ‘When I reached the airport, the flight has departed’, it is obviously wrong. The second part of the sentence should be in Past Perfect tense and read ‘…the flight had departed.’ You will promptly do the correction.
Look for subject-verb agreement. If it reads ‘A large group, consisting of 10 doctors, 7 engineers and 9 scientists, are expected to arrive tomorrow’, then you will notice that the subject-verb agreement is not right. ‘Group’ is singular and so the verb has to be singular. The last part of the sentence should read ‘… is expected to arrive tomorrow.’
All concentration has to be on grammar, and on nothing else. If you do more than one thing at a time, your proof-reading will not be perfect. After you are done with the grammar, you will feel happy and examine another layer.
Whether you follow U.K. or U.S. spelling, you might make spelling mistakes when you write or key in fast as you let your thoughts flow uninterrupted. Read all that is written slowly and carefully, focussing only on the spelling. Pay close attention to words such as ‘dispossess’, ‘assassination’, ‘conscientious’, ‘interpretation’ and ‘intermittent’ – you might discover a missing ‘t’ or an extra ‘s’. Words like ‘haemorrhage’ and ‘manoeuvre’ call for even closer scrutiny.
You can use the spell-checker in your word processor, but never trust it completely. Run it as the first check by all means. But, go through the content word by word yet again, for when you do the check, your brain checks by logic and your eye checks by familiarity. Either your brain or your eye will unfailingly point out a mistake by arresting your progress at all the right (or should we say wrong) places. When you are in doubt about any word, reach out for the dictionary you should always sit beside! Feeling lazy, you may not walk up to the shelf to fetch it or open an online version. That is a big risk you should never take.
Grammar and Spelling checks behind you, you are nearly half-way through. Punctuation is a rather tricky area, especially with regard to colons and semi-colons. Let’s look at two simple examples. She had just one passion: music – (Colon use). Some people have the patience to read long novels; others do not – (Semi-colon use). (If you want to master punctuation, you must study the convention and find excellent examples.)
Colons and semi-colons aside, hyphens and apostrophes pose problems. Though this is not a lesson on punctuation, yet allow me to give you a few examples.
Correct ‘CD’s’ to read ‘CDs’ if you meant the plural of CD.
‘Its’ and ‘it’s’ are often mixed up, by ignorance or haste. ‘I spent a week in Paris. Its a wonderful city’ – ‘Its’ should read ‘It’s’.
The eagle eyed proof-reader spotted several errors – this may read vague, as the reader might momentarily wonder why the eagle eyed the proof-reader. Insert a hyphen to make it eagle-eyed and the vagueness vanishes. (Notice that I write proof-reader and not proofreader – the latter aids pronunciation.)
This is purely judgement-based. Depending on your audience, you will have to decide on tone and diction. While a formal approach will be apt for a corporate brochure, the conversational tone will work best for an ad that talks to a young person about a new brand of jeans. Your choice of words will be dictated partly by the tone you adopt and partly by the profile of your audience.
Remember the layers and proof-read patiently.
Happy perfect proof-reading!