Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Proofing and Polishing Your Text, Old-School Style

In a previous article we suggested printing out what you've written and looking it over on paper to get a different perspective from staring at the screen. But a printed page isn't the only old technology that still works well when you need to communicate clearly and market your skills, products, or services effectively. We humans and our useful inventions go way back.


While you're proofing your work, keep a good dictionary handy, an actual book version.

Look up the spelling of any word about which you're even a little unsure.

Look up the meaning of a word if you're not certain it's the right one for the job.

Online dictionaries are useful and generally accurate, but a printed dictionary has certain advantages. For example, if you don't know how to spell a word, an online dictionary might not be able to figure out what word you're looking for when you type in your best guess. In an old-fashioned book dictionary, on the other hand, you can scan the words in a column to find the desired word even if you don't know its spelling.

Also, looking up a word in a printed dictionary gives you a momentary break from the screen.

Get a full-sized, hardcover dictionary. The small paperback ones may look handy and convenient, but they're very incomplete.

A thesaurus is also an invaluable tool. An online version usually does the trick. It's easy to fall into the habit of using the same old words over and over again. If you find you're using the same adjective more than once in a sentence, or the same term in sentence after sentence, look it up in a thesaurus and find alternative words that mean the same thing. Except when using specific technical terms, you can almost always find ways to vary your terminology, especially with verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.

This isn't just good writing form. It benefits your readers. When we see the same word again and again our attention tends to lag. We get lulled into boredom. So by making your text more interesting for your reader, you're really doing yourself a favor.


Nothing beats the human brain. Even a skilled writer should, whenever possible, have another human being look over his or her copy before it's made available to customers, business partners, or the public.

This second pair of eyes does not have to belong to a professional proofreader or copy editor, although having someone like that handy is always a plus. It could be just about anyone.

It could be a colleague, of course. Someone who knows your business might catch factual errors or suggest improvements.

Or it could just be a friend or family member. Someone who doesn't know your business very well might point out a phrase or a term whose meaning is obvious to you, but might not be to the general reader.

Whoever it is, getting a different point of view will almost always result in some improvements to your writing: clearer phrasing, a better explanation of a technical point, catching spelling errors that you and your spell checker have missed, or any number of things. Two pairs of eyes are always better than one.

However, it is important to know when you do need professional help. If you're rolling out a new website or other mission-critical marketing materials, a marketing and/or writing professional may be needed. Poor grammar, typos, and spelling errors are no more acceptable on a website than they are on printed materials. An unclear sentence is just as bad as a broken link or a missing graphic.

So when you're getting your marketing materials ready for the public -- whether it's printed collateral, a website, a press release, a resume, or anything else that has to represent you in the world -- get a second pair of eyes to look it over. Use a thesaurus to mix things up a little. And when things really have to be perfect, refer (and defer) to the proper authorities: a dictionary for the correct spelling or meaning; a professional to whip things into perfect shape.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Self-Marketing: Stay True, but Stretch!

We're taking a break from the whole spelling and proofreading thing; we admit we burned out on it temporarily. This week we're going to address a couple of matters of marketing (and especially self-marketing) that often crop up when small enterprises try to make a splash.

Don't misrepresent yourself.

While it's important to put the best possible shine on your promotional materials and show yourself off in the best light you can, it's not okay to make things up. A job applicant should not lie on his resume; a marketing director should not lie on her company's website. It's fine to puff things up a bit; it's not fine to fabricate accomplishments that never occurred. One way or another, such falsifying will come back to bite you in the you-know-what.

One marketing professional who was negotiating her first consulting gig recalls walking the line between being honest and selling herself for the job. "The work called for a straight copywriter," she said, "and my background was more broad. I wrote copy as a Marketing Director, but I had never been employed as a copywriter. I did, however, know the brand I would be working on, as I had done marketing for that brand in the past. I was completely upfront with the client about my experience -- and lack thereof. They decided to test me out, so to speak -- which is the kind of opportunity you can get as a consultant -- and see if the partnership worked. It did, and subsequently I got other copywriting jobs since I now had 'copywriter' on my resume."

...But don't be afraid to stretch your boundaries.

Don't be afraid to say yes. As the example above shows, it's good to try things that are outside the scope of what you've done before. Most successful people and businesses didn't get that way by sticking strictly to what they already knew.

True, it's hard for an established company to go into a new line of business unrelated to its "core competencies," but that has as much to do with inertia as with actual capability. Individuals and small businesses with an entrepreneurial spirit not only can but often must stretch. Got a chance to do a project that's unlike those you've done before? Chances are, like the marketing professional in the example above, you'll be better off going for it. You'll learn something, make new contacts, and become more versatile, adding to the list of skills you can advertise in the future. We're humans -- creative beings, not machines. By definition, we're adaptable.  In fact, we're the most adaptable animals on the planet.  And it's a good thing, because our world changes rapidly.

But change is not your enemy.  Use that adaptable brain to stretch your limits and grow your capabilities. You might find hidden talents you didn't even know you had.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Spelling, Part Two: It Don't Mean a Thing

In Part One we covered the basics of using your computer's spell checker. But a spell checker catches only words it can't find in its dictionary. You still have to carefully read over your text, using your own eyes and brain to catch any errors that remain.

This is hard, though. It takes concentration -- and not the same type of concentration required when reading normally. Probably the biggest reason even good spellers fail to catch errors is that the reading brain actually works against the proofreading brain. Normally, when you're reading, your brain doesn't care about individual letters or words, it cares about meaning. It wants to quickly absorb the whole phrase or sentence, to comprehend what's actually being said and move on. So it unconsciously "corrects" or ignores misspellings; it may detect them, but they never make it into the conscious mind.

How can you get around this? Here are a few strategies that can help you become an effective error-catcher.

Read slowly, word by word.

You can help prevent your brain from ignoring the errors by reading slowly enough to experience each word in isolation. By disconnecting the word from the meaning of the phrase or sentence, you're more likely to notice if it doesn't look right. Here's the classic demonstration of the brain not noticing something that's plain to see, but contrary to expectations:

Paris in the Spring

Most viewers, if they're unfamiliar with this puzzle, when asked to read it aloud will say, "Paris in the spring," not noticing the extra "the."

Read out loud.

Some proofreaders recommend reading out loud. This is one way to force yourself to read slowly and deliberately.

Take a break.

Professional copy editor Karen Sherman suggests a pause. "Put the piece aside and come back to it later. When you're writing something, you know what you're trying to say, so that's what you see when you look at it; when you come back to it after doing something else for a while, you'll have a fresh perspective on it, and it's amazing the things you'll notice. It's the next best thing to having someone else proofread your work for you."

Waste a little paper.

Sherman also suggests "printing the piece out and reading it on paper; it's amazing how many things you'll catch that way that you wouldn't notice on the screen." Just from this little change of scene you'll be approaching your text with a fresh eye.

Make the text large enough to read clearly.

You don't have to accept the default size of the text. If you're proofreading on a screen, view your text in a large font, or magnify the window or screen resolution so you can read carefully without straining your eyes. Your eyes will get less fatigued, and you'll be more accurate. The same goes for printed text: print your document in a font size that's large enough to read and proof easily.

Give these simple tips a try.  They're sure to improve your proofreading accuracy.

These techniques can't turn a poor speller into a good one, though. After all, you can't catch and correct errors if you don't recognize them in the first place. Being a poor speller is not a personality defect; some very smart people (some very smart writers, in fact) simply aren't good at spelling.  The type of visual memory that makes misspelled words "look wrong" is stronger in some people than in others.

So what can you do if you're a poor speller -- or if you simply don't have the time or energy to proofread your own writing?  Tune in next week.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Spelling, Part One: Spell Checker Wisdom

I shouldn't need to tell you this, but here goes: always use a spell checker. Most word processing programs, like Microsoft Word, include a built-in spell checker. Some browsers, such as Firefox, also include one.

Of course, using a spell checker isn't enough. A spell checker won't catch "too" when you meant "to." It won't flag "Connected" when you meant "Connecticut," or the contraction "it's" when you meant the possessive "its." It catches only those words it's unable to find in its dictionary. So using the spell checker is only the first step. You must follow it up by carefully reading over your text, using your own eyes and brain to try and catch any errors that remain. More on that next week.

Behind every spell checker is a dictionary. But this dictionary doesn't come preloaded with every word you'll ever use. It starts with only a basic vocabulary; it needs to learn any special or unusual words that you use.

Fortunately, you can grow your spell checker's dictionary. Proper nouns, foreign words, and new or uncommon words are likely to be missing from your spell checker's dictionary until you add them. So, if your spell checker flags a word that you know is spelled correctly, add it to the dictionary -- especially if it's a word you expect to use often. Any good spell checker gives you the option of adding a word to its dictionary, so that -- as Pete Townshend might say -- it won't get flagged again.

The ability to add words to your spell checker's dictionary isn't just convenient. It's also important. If your spell checker keeps on flagging words that aren't wrong, over and over, this can actually make it harder for your tired eyes to spot the flagged words that you do need to correct. Our eyes and brains are imperfect. They tend to get fatigued and take unconscious shortcuts. Having lots of extraneous false positives staring us in the face makes us prone to glide over and miss the real errors, even when they've got red underlines.

Ideally, virtually every word your spell checker flags should be a legitimate error that you need to fix. Over time, as you add words to your dictionary, you'll get closer and closer to this ideal.

So use your spell checker. And don't just run it to give your work a quick once-over. Really use it as the adaptable tool it is.

It's your first line of defense against looking unprofessional.

NEXT WEEK: Spelling, Part Two: It Don't Mean a Thing.