Catching (and Correcting)
Errors in Your Business Writing
By Brent Sampson
Recently, an online blog debate sparked over “What is your worse
fear?” While the blog was filled with valuable information, the
majority of the responses and feedback focused on whether the proper
word was “worse” or “worst.” English majors came out of the
woodwork to plead their case, camps divided and flame wars began.
Sure, the article garnered a lot of attention, but perhaps not the
best kind for the author. Readers were not divided on the subject
matter; they were divided on whether or not the writer was
proficient in the English language.
The point is, a wrong word devalued the whole article and as a
result, discredited the writer. Don’t make the same mistake. Below
are five tips you can employ to drastically decrease the chance of
mistakes finding their way into your business writing, whether it be
a proposal, a website, a book, or a newsletter.
1. Utilize an editor:
The most common mistakes are minor, such as misspellings or
incorrect use of punctuation. Other common errors are incorrect word
use (their, they're, there; worse, worst, borscht, etc.). A
professional editor is adept at noticing and correcting these kinds
of mistakes. If your professional writing will be seen by many – a
website or an emailed newsletter – do not make the mistake of
relying solely upon a computerized spell-checker, which cannot tell
the difference between “worse” and “worst” as both are properly
spelled. Use a human editor.
2. Get a second and third set of eyes:
Since you are overly familiar with your own work you are much more
likely to miss obvious mistakes because your mind already knows what
it is supposed to say, rather than what it actually
says. Even if you do not wish to pay a professional, anyone who
reviews your writing will find mistakes you invariably miss. When
others read your work, they don’t have any preconceived notions
about your writing. At the same time, human behavior will often
motivate them to find fault. Use that to your advantage. In addition
to finding mistakes, other people may offer helpful suggestions to
make your business writing stronger.
3. Come back to it later:
How long do you wait after writing to begin editing? Many writers
edit their work as they write it. Not only does this slow
down the creative process, it increases the chance that your mind
will ignore blatant errors in deference to your intentions. Once
your brain thinks a paragraph is free from errors, it tends to
overlook any new errors that are introduced during the rewriting
process. Put your writing away for several hours, days or weeks
(depending on your deadlines) and revisit it later. After some time
away from your work, you will be more likely to read the words as
they appear on the page, not as you envisioned them in your mind.
The mind is error free, the page is not.
4. Read your material backward:
Fortunately, you are only familiar with your writing in one
direction – forward. Reading your material backward makes it seem
entirely different and fools your mind into ignoring the intention
and only concentrating on the reality. Furthermore, your critical
view of the writing at its most technical level will not be
corrupted by the flowing exposition you have massaged into sparkling
prose. When you read your manuscript backward, it becomes a
collection of words without contextual meaning. The brain has
nothing to focus upon other than the words themselves and mistakes
literally jump off the page.
5. Read your material out loud:
When you read words aloud, your brain must slow down and concentrate
on the material. How fast can you read the following sentence? The
quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs. Now how fast can you
read it out loud? It takes at least twice as long, and those
precious milliseconds sometimes make all the difference between a
typo that is missed, and one that is caught and corrected. As a
popular Internet posting informed us in 2003, “it deosn't mttaer in
waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is
taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can
be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wtihuot any porbelm. Tihs
is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but
the wrod as a wlohe. But try raednig tihs out luod” and see how far
you get. An extra bonus for reading your material out loud is that
you may discover stumbling blocks like awkward sentence structure
and choppy dialogue. Strong business writing is not only dependent
on error free prose; it must be crisp and clear.
As a writer, what is your worst fear? Is it publishing
something littered with mistakes? Don’t make good writing bad or bad
writing worse by failing to catch errors before publication.
Your writing career, your business, and your readers will thank you.
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