The year was 1631, and the brand-spanking new edition of the King James Bible was hot off the presses. Unfortunately, the typesetter omitted one very small but important word: “not.” Thus, the seventh commandment read, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” The publisher was fined £300 for his mistake, which was a lot of money back then, and the church ordered all copies of the bible with the error be destroyed.
In our 17 years of business, we have had our own unfortunate incidents with proofreading—every agency does, large or small. Like the word “garage,” printed in 5,000 brochures as “gargage.” And a phone number digit that was transposed in an R.S.V.P. number for a client’s V.I.P. event invitation.
When you’re in the business long enough, it happens. When you have looked at the same piece through 10 or 20 drafts, your mind starts to fill in the missing pieces and correct errors. That’s why professional proofreaders are so important.
We sometimes encounter client resistance when we want to build in costs for proofreading, but it’s worth every penny. It can save you money (like the cost to re-print those 5,000 brochures) and the wrath of your boss. The key to success is to give the piece to the proofreader for the first time at the end of the creative development process. Being unfamiliar with it, her brain won’t fill in the extra words or numbers that were there seven drafts ago.
There really is no substitute for a professional proofreader, but there are some tricks you can use to help minimize errors throughout the development process.
- Print it. Seeing the words on an actual piece of paper instead of the screen is helpful. It places the content in a new environment, so your brain and eyes are more likely to notice errors.
- Read it slowly. Let’s face it; the digital world has made skimmers out of the most diligent of us. We quickly scroll down the latest Twitter feeds, glance at LinkedIn posts, and rush through infographics. Having the discipline to read like a proofreader means reading one word at a time slowly. It’s what will help you catch using “it’s” when you meant to use “its.”
- Read it out loud. Saying each word out loud and slowly will also bring typos and errors to light. If you’re rushing to meet deadline and the copy has been approved, this is not the time to mess with rewrites.
- Read it backwards. This is an especially good technique for flushing out typos and grammatical errors. It makes you stop and think, instead of rushing forward.
What should you do if a piece developed by your agency, but read and approved by you, is distributed with a typo? In our opinion and experience (which has, fortunately, been limited), the fair solution is to share the blame, as well as the cost to correct the error. If you’re lucky, it’s a digital piece and not an annual report sent to 100,000 people.
Good proofreading does more than correct typos—it also corrects grammar. Do you know which is correct?
(a) One of my life’s goals has been to go to law school.
(b) One of my life’s goals have been to go to law school.
Hint: It’s about subject and verb agreement. To proofread for subject-verb agreement, circle the subject and verb in each sentence and be sure they agree.
For more on how to proofread for common errors, check out Indiana University’s web page. Other resources include the “AP Stylebook” and the ever popular and timeless writer’s companion, “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.
p.s. the correct answer is (a)