Telling someone to proofread is like reminding them to eat their vegetables. Or fasten their seat belts. Or floss. It’s one of those things we all know is good for us, but sometimes we resist doing it because it takes effort, can be tedious, and requires extra time.
It’s like when you’re sitting in your seat waiting for a plane to take off and the flight attendants are droning on about safety procedures. You look around at your fellow passengers and no one is listening. They’re not even looking up. After all the hassle of shoving carry-ons into the overhead compartment and waiting for that person in front of you to sit down already, everyone just wants to take off.
It’s the same way with writing. You’ve spent a lot of time with your document, report, email or presentation, rereading paragraphs like a mantra, writing and rewriting sentences, sighing because you’re not exactly sure what to say next. Or you’re on a tight deadline and don’t have time to labor over your sentences and find the exact right words. You’re slapping it together and hoping for the best. Either way, you just want to click “send” and be done.
But stop. Wait. Hold on. “Take a deep breath,” as my friend Paul would say. Because proofreading isn’t a chore even when it feels like one. It’s an opportunity — an opportunity to maintain your credibility, improve the clarity of your writing, and trim your sentences to only what you need. Here’s how.
I don’t care how smart you are, typos can make you look dumb. Or at least careless and sloppy, which is not exactly the image you want to project in the professional world. As readers, we all question the credibility of a writer or publication when we stumble upon a typo or grammatical error. Sometimes typos can be downright embarrassing.
When I was an editor at a Chicago magazine, we published an annual section ranking the “100 Largest Public Companies in Chicago.” Every year I lived in fear we would misspell “public” in one of the stories or headlines by forgetting the “L” and end up with a section about the “100 Largest Pubic Companies in Chicago.” Luckily we never did. But we could have. I’ve seen it happen, which is why I always proofread that particular section veerrryyy caaarrefullly before it was printed.
When you’re proofreading I have three words for you: hard copy, hard copy, hard copy. Okay, yes, that’s six words. The point is, don’t proofread on the screen. Print out your work and read it on the page. I know it’s the 21st century, but our eyes skip over errors on a computer screen.
If I’m tired or have been working on a project for hours on end, I sometimes try to talk myself into skipping the step of printing out the document for review because it involves getting out of my chair and walking to the printer. I usually find the strength to override this impulse because I know I’m going to find errors on the page that I didn’t see sitting at my computer. I’m always glad I didn’t give in.
Most people think of proofreading as checking their work for typos, grammatical errors and formatting mistakes. Those tasks are important, but proofreading is also your opportunity to improve the clarity of your content. It’s the time to ask yourself questions like: Is this really the best headline? Could I get to the point more quickly? Did I include enough detail in my examples? Do the paragraphs flow one into the other? Does the third paragraph make sense? Do I even need the fifth paragraph?
A common refrain among writers is, “Writing is rewriting,” and all the best writers do it. So take the time when you’re proofreading to think about where and how you could make improvements. Some writing experts recommend putting your draft away for a day or two so you can come back to it with fresh eyes. That’s when you might notice, “My entire first paragraph is in passive voice. Yikes!”
Proofreading with this level of attention is particularly important when you’re working on a draft with multiple people. After everyone is done tinkering and redlining, print it out in final draft form and read through it in one sitting. Does it flow? Maintain the same tone? Is anything redundant or confusing? Your document may have been edited or written by five different people, but the end product shouldn’t sound like it.
Proofreading is the perfect time to prune adverbs, adjectives and other wordiness from your sentences. We all write (and speak) with more words than we need, and it’s nearly impossible to be as one of my writing teacher says, “lean of expression,” on the first try.
William Zinsser, a US journalist and nonfiction author, argues in his book On Writing Well that most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent. Yes, 50 percent. Zinsser explains:
Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon. The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what — these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.
How do you avoid strangling your readers? Let’s break it down by the four writing transgressions Zinsser lists above.
1. Every word that serves no function.
These are typically adjectives, adverbs and other unnecessary modifiers. Read the sentences below and see how they lose no meaning without those words.
Enforcement authorities have become very strict about what they consider fraud.
We are really excited to have this opportunity to respond to your RFP.
Warranty and indemnity insurers have developed high levels of expertise in the real estate sector.
2. Every long word that could be a short word.
assistance → help
numerous → many
remainder → rest
initial → first
attempt → try
utilize → use
obtain → get
We all fall victim to using these longer words in professional writing because we think they make us sound more authoritative or academic. But do they really? Let’s read one sentence with the longer words and a second with the shorter ones to test the difference.
I need your assistance finishing the remainder of our assignment because when I initially attempted to utilize the new skills we learned in class, I couldn’t obtain the right answer.
I need your help finishing the rest of our assignment because when I first tried to use the new skills we learned in class, I couldn’t get the right answer.
Which sentence is clearer? Easier to read? Do you lose any professionalism by using shorter words?
3. Every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb.
We regularly advise multinational companies on tax structuring during mergers and acquisitions.
She routinely represents clients in arbitration hearings.
He currently serves as chairman of the firm.
In the first three sentences above, you don’t need the adverbs because the present tense verb already tells you that’s what the subject of the sentence regularly, routinely and currently does.
4. Every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what.
Passive construction: In markets like China, the use of warranty and indemnity insurance is starting to be seen as a viable alternative.
Starting to be seen by whom?
Active construction: In markets like China, corporate and private equity bidders are starting to see the use of warranty and indemnity insurance as a viable alternative.
Ah, okay, now I get it.
Given the advantages of proofreading, it’s time to embrace the process as an opportunity to improve your writing rather than as an onerous task. The glass is half full, not half empty and all that rose-colored glasses stuff. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get up, walk over to the printer, and proofread this post.