One of the huge pluses of writing not provided in other forms of communication is the element of a “do-over.” Haven’t we all wanted a second chance when we’ve said something stupid, thoughtless, or hurtful? In hindsight, haven’t some of us wished we’d not posted a 20-year-old photo of ourselves on Match.com when first encounter time rolled around?
There’s only one chance to make a first impression. Unfortunately, many of those we make don’t show us in our best light. People we see for the first time might catch us at a moment when we’re ill, angry, depressed, or overwhelmed. Even though we might want to, we can’t say, “Please disregard what you’re seeing, and come back in 15 minutes when I’m not weeping uncontrollably.”
Once the first impression is made, it’s made. Therein lies the benefit of written communication. It gives you the chance to make a dandy first impression if you take a few simple steps and use the time you have to “clean up your act” before anyone sees you in the buff.
Yes, writing takes more time and thought than simply speaking to others in person or on the phone, but because your writing is often the first impression you make on others, why not make it the best first impression you can?
Use Your Tools
Word is equipped with a spelling and grammar check for a reason. Use this feature, but do so with caution; it isn’t foolproof. For example, we have a host of words in English called homonyms. They sound alike, but their spellings and meanings aren’t the same (there, their, and they’re, or to, too, and two). Spellcheck won’t signal that you’ve used the wrong one as long as the word is spelled correctly.
Print Your Text
If you’ve taken the time or have been told you must put something in writing, print out a hard copy of your work. While you may think what’s on your computer monitor is flawless, it isn’t. Reading a hard-copy version will reveal mistakes you simply won’t see on your screen.
If your text is single spaced, double space it before you print the copy. This way you will be better able to read each line of type and catch mistakes that might otherwise go unnoticed. You’ll also have room to make the corrections.
Proof for Goofs
With the hard copy in front of you, read through the text looking for errors that occur in spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. Whether you use a highlighter, pencil, or red pen makes no difference as long as you mark the mistakes.
If your organization has an authorized internal style sheet or style guide (for example, the GPO Manual of Style), now is the time to check what you have typed against what is preferred in such a guide. Make any necessary changes to align your presentation with your workplace’s preferences.
One recommendation for catching spelling mistakes involves reading a text backwards from the last word to the first. By doing so, you aren’t reading in context, so you can’t anticipate what the next word should be. By anticipating what should be there, you run the risk of missing what actually is there. Reading backwards keeps you from doing this.
As for punctuation, look at each string of words you have put together as a sentence, and make sure you actually have a sentence. Any sentence must begin with a capital letter and end with either a period, question mark, or exclamation point. You must also have a subject, a verb, and a complete idea. Does each sentence you read meet these requirements? If not, now is the time to make corrections.
Points to Ponder
- If you’re flying solo on a writing project and must function as your own proofreader, put the text aside for at least a little while before you attempt to find mistakes and make corrections. You’ll be too close to your text to do a thorough and objective job. Distance in time and space will help you catch errors more easily.
- Read the text out loud. Hearing it from your own mouth might help you realize a sentence is too long or you have beaten a certain word to death.
- Better yet, have someone else read what you have written. Fresh eyes can be a godsend, and an objective reader is not as close to your subject as you are. Get by with a little help from a knowledgeable, willing friend.
- Be willing to make changes. One of the worst things a writer can do is fall in love with his or her own work. Admit there is room for improvement, and make corrections when necessary.
- When moving from your corrected hard copy to what is on your computer, slow down and read line by line so you don’t overlook problems that need to be fixed. As a final check, print out the corrected electronic version and match it against the marked hard copy.
While this might sound like a lot of work, remember what’s at stake. This piece of writing you have labored over may be the only chance you have to make a first impression. Make it a lasting one for the right reasons since what you write is a reflection of you and your organization.