The Lost Art of Proofreading

In this instant age, we think we don't have time to proofread. Or, we say, "That's why they created spell check." But sending e-mails and documents with typographical errors and poor grammar says that you don't care. You don't care enough to re-read what you've written, or run spell check, or double check how to spell someone's name. And if you don't care about your interpersonal communication, you're saying you don't care about the person with whom you're communicating. It's personal.
My first job out of college was as a proofreader, and I've always prided myself on being a pretty good speller (despite misspelling the word "beagle" in my grade school spelling bee). But knowing how to spell is not a prerequisite to being a good proofreader. Here are a few tips I've picked up along the way:


Yes, that's a tough one. Our fingers are itching to hit the "send" button, risking the dreaded misspelling of "public" or hitting the "s" key twice when typing "as." Do yourself a favor. Save your e-mail or document, go on to something else, and then come back and read it. You'll be amazed at the number of errors you'll catch.

Know Your Enemy. Everyone has words that trip them up. For me, it might be "beagle." For you, it might be "their," "there" and "they're." Or, it could be an important person's name. (I'm ashamed to admit to recently misspelling someone's name in an e-mail--an e-mail that was apologizing for misspelling his name.) Whatever your point of weakness, give it special attention.

Look it Up.

I remember telling my second grade teacher, "How can I look a word up in the dictionary if I don't know how to spell it?" Thankfully today there are electronic references for those hard-to-spell words. Even a Google search will recommend a correct spelling. And, if you're feeling retro, grab that old Webster's down from your shelf and dust it off.

Confirm It.

Typing in a phone number or web address? Double check it. The difference between 1-800 and 1-877 phone numbers and .org and .com web addresses can be big--and embarrassing. An easy check is to simply dial the number you've typed.

Don't Rely on Spell Check.

No red-underlined words? It doesn't mean you're good to go. If I'm feeling especially diligent, I may even run spell check. But as we have all learned the hard way, there are words that, although they may be spelled correctly, aren't necessarily appropriate in an important email.

Read it Backwards.

If you're proofreading short, but important, text--for example, the inscription on the engraved award for your boss's boss--try reading it backwards. You're forced to focus on each individual word. And your brain won't play tricks on you by skipping over words that need to be checked.

Read it Out Loud.

Hearing what you've written can reveal grammatical errors, run-on sentences, or other problems that don't jump off the written page. It's much better to read your letter out loud before the recipient yells across their office, "Listen to what Chris just sent me!"

Pass it Around.

Again, depending on the importance of your communication, have someone else read it. It's easier to find errors in other people's work. Your know-it-all co-worker would love to find the mistakes in your document; use that to your advantage.

The bottom line? In this age of instant communication, you can help set yourself and your organization apart by taking that extra moment to proofread what you write. It matters.