How to Proofread Your Writing So It's Clean, Clear and Direct
March 14, 2018
Imagine you just ran a successful project. You are excited – this is great for both the organization and your career. Things are looking up!
So, you send an email touting the project’s success to your boss and other higher-ups. What should be a moment of adulation for you is anything but – because, in that email is a big typo. It's the equivalent of showing off a new Ferrari with a massive scratch running down the side of it.
Sure, the results will still likely be met with praise. But, despite all of your hard work, part of that praise will be tempered because of that one stupid mistake. And, if you continue to make typos in other emails, people will begin to not take you seriously – even if you are otherwise producing fantastic work.
Erin Rickard’s goal is for you to never experience that. In her LinkedIn Learning course Editing and Proofreading Made Simple, Rickard gave tips for proofreading your writing, so it's clean, clear and direct.
7 tips for proofreading your own writing
1. First off, take a break before proofreading.
It’s much easier to edit someone else’s work than your own, because you are removed from the copy and see it with fresh eyes. There’s a simple way to recreate that with your own words – take a break.
The length of the break is directly related to the length and importance of whatever you wrote. If you are writing a two-sentence email to a colleague, a one-minute break will likely suffice. If you are writing a long, important email to a higher-up, take a break from it for at least one hour before editing.
If you are writing something long-form like a blog post, a critical email or a report, give it at least a day. Then you'll see the copy with fresh eyes, which will make proofreading easier.
2. Read it aloud.
You should read everything you write aloud. It takes a half-second and it’s an easy way to capture mistakes.
“Before hitting send, read your work aloud,” Rickard said in her course. “Our ears are excellent calibrators. When something sounds strange, it's usually wrong.”
For the sake of people around you, you can read it aloud… to yourself. But this alone will reduce most errors and suffice for short, quick emails.
3. Read it bottom-to-top, instead of top-to-bottom.
Here's a hack that'll help you see typos you'd otherwise skim over.
The reason many of us make typos is because our brain starts assuming what’s next and it skims over words; the content is driving us forward. Reading the last sentence first and working your way backwards through the text eliminates that and focuses your mind on each word.
4. Print it out.
Obviously, you aren’t going to do this for every email you send. But, for important emails, blog posts and reports, this is a great technique.
“By actually printing out your document and looking at it from a different perspective, you can really catch some errors that would just have snuck by otherwise,” Rickard said in her course.
5. Watch out for common mistakes.
There are some words many people tend to misuse. Be mindful of those – even search your document for those words to ensure you've used them correctly.
Some of the most common examples are:
- Its and it’s. Usually, an apostrophe means possessive. But that’s not the case here – use its for possessive (example: the dog and its leash) and it’s when you are combining the words “it” and “is” (example: it’s my favorite time of year).
- Your and you’re. Again, your is possessive, where you’re is a contraction of “you” and “are.” A simple way to remind yourself: in the sentence, if you could replace the word with you are, use you’re. If you can’t, use your.
- That and which. Here's an easy rule to remember this one. Which almost always follows a comma (our office, which is in Dublin, has a coffee machine) and that almost never does (our office that is in Dublin has a coffee machine).
Rickard listed more commonly misused words in an exercise file as part of her course.
6. Remove the passive voice.
Great copy is direct. Using the passive voice flies in the face of that goal: almost invariably, it adds unnecessary words and weakens your point.
“The passive voice inserts extra words between the subject and the object in a sentence,” Rickard said in her course. “You might think this makes your writing sound more formal or dignified, which is why people do it, but all it's really doing is interfering with the directness of what you're trying to say.”
This comes down to structure. The active voice mostly follows the same structure – subject, verb and object. Examples: The dog barked at the man. The man attacked. We spent $1,000 on Twitter advertising.
The passive voice jumbles that structure, where the verb or object leads the sentence. Examples: The man was barked at by the dog (object, verb, subject). The attack was brought forth by the man (verb, subject). Spending $1,000 on Twitter was our idea (verb, object, subject).
7. Use the simplest word possible.
People use the passive voice to sound more intelligent. For the same reason, people tend to use big words, when shorter words would do.
This has the opposite effect. The simpler the words you can use to make a point, the better, as that increases clarity.
So, don’t write, “After weeks of examining a wide variety of mediums, we elected to allocate the balance of our resources on the social media platform our research indicated would deliver the highest return on our investment.” Instead, just write, “We tested five channels and found LinkedIn advertising to be the most efficient, so we spent the remaining $300,000 in our budget there.”
"A little bit of effort and patience can make all the difference when checking your grammar, punctuation, capitalization and spelling," Rickard said in her course. "I know it takes a little bit of effort but, when you take the time to check, it shows."
There’s more to writing flawless copy than just proofreading – you also need to edit for content, format, style and tone. Learn how by watching Rickard’s full course.
Other LinkedIn Learning courses you might be interested in are: