17 February, 2011
By Alex Painter
Would you trust a five star hotel offering 'luxry accommodation'? Or an online retailer who asked for your 'adress' in a contact form? I wouldn't. And I'm not alone. However, even if you believe that most of your customers don't care about spelling errors, ignoring those who do is terrible business practice.
Of course, it's not just spelling. Inconsistencies and poor grammar can be just as off-putting. In reality, most organizations appreciate their importance. When mistakes do occur, it's rarely because people don't care. More often than not, it's a combination of a lack of skills and inadequate processes that gets in the way.
So here are five tips that will help you to avoid those embarrassing errors.
If you don't have one, create a house style for your organization. What do I mean by that? Well, this is really about consistency, and it's especially important in larger organizations, where brochures, catalogues, websites and ads may be written by teams of different people, some from external organizations, such as advertising or PR agencies.
The point is that, by and large, all these communications should share a single 'voice'. They should read pretty much as though they were all written by the same person.
Don't get me wrong – I'm not saying that your corporate brochure copy should look just like the copy on your 48-sheet poster. Much depends on the audience and the medium. But there are some basic things that should always be consistent.
If you're unsure how to get started, there's a useful guide to building your house style here.
This is a simple but important point. People often check the fine details meticulously, while missing mistakes that, on the face of it, should be obvious.
So, for example, when you're proofreading advertising copy, pay particular attention to headlines. It's all too easy to skip over them, assuming that there can't be a mistake in the headline because someone would have noticed. That someone should be you!
This distinction is essential to making sure you don't end up in an endless cycle of writing and rewriting.
Very broadly, proofreading is mainly about checking for mistakes that might have crept in between the editing stage and the design / typesetting stage. The proofreader is also expected to pick up clear errors that were missed during editing.
Copy-editing is also about picking up errors, but in addition it can involve rewriting parts of the text (e.g. to make it clearer).
Why is it so important to know the difference? It's partly to do with drawing a line under the editing process (see point 4, below), but it's also to ensure that each task is done by the person best suited to it. For example, advertising copy is often carefully crafted to have a certain effect on the reader, and you need to make sure that that work is not undone in the proofreading process. People can be excellent proofreaders without being great writers, and writing for marketing purposes is a separate skill in itself.
It's important to understand that changes late in document production are likely to be more costly than those made early on.
What does this mean?
Well, imagine you're producing a brochure. You start by writing the copy, perhaps in MS Word. At this point, if you have to make changes to the copy, it's as simple as editing that Word document.
Now consider the next stage. You send your document to a designer who inputs the text into their design using desktop publishing software. If you make a change now, depending on its extent, you have to bear in mind its impact on the design. Will the text now spill over onto another page? Is there enough room to accommodate it? Do you also apply the same change(s) to your original Word document, just in case you need to re-use the text? Generally speaking, changes at this point take longer, cost more and raise the risk that further errors will be introduced.
One lesson to draw from this is that it's worth getting copy and design signed off separately. Most organizations require a sign-off from a senior member of staff, such as a director. Often this happens only right at the end of the process, when a printer's proof is available. If that director then decides to make sweeping changes, it can create terrible headaches, as well as risk missing deadlines and exceeding budgets.
When you read back something you wrote, you tend to see what you intended to write, not what is actually on the page. It's therefore easy to miss errors in your own writing, no matter how careful you are. If at all possible, find somebody else to check your writing.
Getting it right 100% of the time is impossible. But with good processes and great tools, you can save money and keep errors to a minimum.
Alex Painter has worked in marketing for fifteen years and has been involved in training in publishing skills for the last ten. He works for Editorial Training, an organization that runs courses in proofreading editing and grammar, including a course dedicated to proofreading for business.