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.