By David Rose
As some of you will already know, I published a two-part series earlier this year outlining the six key principles of ‘Effective Professional Writing’.
Containing a framework of ready-to-use tools to immediately boost the quality of your professional documents, I urge you to read them now if you haven’t done so yet:
These two articles focus on the before and during of an effective, time-efficient writing process.
Now, logically, it’s time to focus on what follows after you have produced your draft document – proofreading and editing.
1. How do most people proofread/edit?
Through absolutely no lack of effort or professionalism, most people’s proofreading and editing is unfortunately time-inefficient and frankly not as comprehensive as it could be.
Consider your own experience…
In all honesty, how many times have you proofread/edited a document, only to discover some errors and inconsistencies of style and clarity after it’s been submitted/published/ sent… i.e. when it’s too late…?
I have a 14-year experience of providing drafting training in the institutional and corporate sectors, as well as providing editing support for ‘key’ external documents e.g. position papers, marketing materials and annual reports.
Throughout these years, I have continued to see a pattern of avoidable errors, inconsistencies of style and lack of clarity in what are intended to be final documents…
Why? Because like consistently high-level writing, consistently comprehensive and time-efficient proofreading and editing is a schematic process rather than a linear, often (slightly) disorganised act, regardless of time constraints.
In a moment, I’m going to present a concrete, schematic procedure for the day-to-day proofreading and editing of your own and/or others’ texts.
First, though, I’d like you to consider a few key questions:
(a) How many times do you normally re-read a text when proofreading?
I assume many of you here will answer either “once or maybe twice” or “it depends”. Understandable, since I’m sure most if not all of you have a busy job with a limited time budget…
Ideal answer: Four times (yes, four!)
(b) Which specific things are you looking for each time and why?
Usually here, the answer is ”everything”… in real terms meaning from grammar, syntax and spelling through clarity and accuracy of content to conciseness and tone just to mention a significant but incomplete part of the whole story…
Best case scenario, you’re actually looking for all the relevant things simultaneously – therefore suffering from what I term ‘massive multi-tasking overload’…so missing some issues in the text…
Worst case scenario, you’re trying to look for all the relevant things simultaneously but are missing some essential criteria, while in the meantime still suffering ‘massive multi-tasking overload’…so are missing an even larger quantity of issues in the text…
Ideal answer: A pre-decided set of no more than four related text features each time
(c) Which order do you do each step in and why?
Again, here your answer may well be “no order – I do it all at once”, or perhaps “no particular order, it depends”…
First two times you re-read
Each time, your focus is on a different, pre-decided set of four whole-text items, including section/paragraphing construction and style, use of references and footnotes as well as use of terminology.
Second two times you re-read
Each time, your focus is now on a different, pre-decided set of four sentence-level features, including length and style of sentence construction, use of linking words, grammar and tone.
Here’s a parallel for you: consider yourself learning to juggle four similar things. You are likely to succeed – as it’s relatively easy to learn to do, assuming your technique is not faulty.
Now, I want you to imagine yourself trying to juggle 16 things of different shapes and sizes… Yes, you’re dropping things…
Hardly surprising really, as the task is beyond even many of the most experienced professional jugglers, regardless of technique or talent.
You the juggler struggling with 16 different objects is exactly like you as a writer trying to apply the 16 main proofreading/editing criteria to a text simultaneously as you re-read it… massive multi-tasking overload!
You’re highly unlikely to catch every issue in the draft text, as each of the 16 criteria you need to use focuses on a different area and/or level of the text.
Successful – meaning here time-efficient and consistently comprehensive proofreading and editing – needs a pre-decided, schematic procedure.
So, without further delay, here it is:
2. How you should proofread and edit
The following ‘checklist’ will guide you when proofreading/editing you own or colleagues’ texts:
Read the whole text once, focussing on:
1) Whole text level: audience and organisation
- · Check the general tone and content is properly orientated to the intended audience
- · Ensure all paragraphs are logically organised and of consistent length (i.e. ideally 3-6 lines)
- · Identify any ‘difficult sections’ where the text logic breaks down or re-reading is required
- · Make sure all quotes are sourced, facts correct +/- referenced and statements justified
Now, read the whole text again, this time focussing on:
2) Whole text level: terminology, references and visuals
- · Terminology is introduced on 1st usage with acronyms used after as well as proper names being correctly and consistently used
- · Check all references (back, forward and to other texts/URLs) in the text to ensure they are correct and correspond
- · Check if tables, figures, graphics or other visual elements are clear (not overloaded, text size not too small, colours visible) and properly coordinated with the text
- · Can any (over-)complex paragraphs be better replaced with a table/figure/footnote – such as those with long lists, range of numbers/data?
Now read the text one group of sentences/paragraph at a time, focussing on:
3) Sentence-level style: construction and links
- · Are the sentences of an appropriate and relatively consistent length (i.e. 1 – 2.5 lines)
- · Have any key messages been avoidably subordinated (overcomplicated) by use of the passive and/or relative clauses (that/which/who/when)?
- · Can you separate any sentences and rejoin them with link words to improve clarity and precision?
- · Are the sentence links (therefore, however, additionally etc.) appropriate and non-repetitive and are reference words (it, this, these etc.) clear?
Within each group of sentences, now read each in detail again to check:
4) Sentence and sub-sentence level features: language, tone and punctuation
- · Do subjects and verbs agree? Are tenses consistent? Are there any ‘common grammatical errors’?
- · Is there any avoidable repetition?
- · Is the use of punctuation appropriate (tip: more than two commas in a sentence is always to be avoided, except for lists)
- · Can negative words be replaced with a more positive tone (e.g. using ‘issue’ instead of the more negative ‘problem’)? Can word choices be made more constructive (e.g. replacing ‘it’s not good enough to launch’ with ‘it requires further improvement for a successful launch’)?
In a nutshell, efficient and comprehensive proofreading:
- Is always needed for texts – we’re all human and under time pressure when we write!
- Should be a pre-planned, schematic process not a ‘hopeful and random act’
Remember – trying to juggle 16 balls simultaneously is not only extremely difficult if not impossible, but also unnecessary J
Now, it’s over to you to apply my proposed proofreading checklist to improve your professional writing!
Does your organisation need training? Please contact me at email@example.com so your organisation can benefit from my consultancy’s personalised, highly practical and cost-effective communication training services.
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● Professional Writing (reports, minutes, memos, briefings etc.)
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© David Rose LACS Training 2011