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June 20246 min read

Proofreading Tips for Business Professionals

Proofreading Tips for Business Professionals

Typographical errors are not just a concern for fastidious grammar geeks and English teachers. Overlooked typos can have a real impact on a business’ reputation. They can suggest a carelessness that might reduce credibility and result in readers receiving inaccurate information. Understanding a bit about how the brain processes written words and applying some basic proofreading tips can help business professionals avoid these problems.

How the Brain Processes Written Words

One example of how the brain processes written words is the internet meme that reads:

“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 at the rghit pclae.”

(Translation: It doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are; the only important thing is that the first and last letter be at the right place.)

While the science behind how the brain processes scrambled words is more nuanced than the meme’s unscrambled claim suggests,1 the meme is a useful example of how the brain seeks meaning and why we might fail to identify errors in our own writing. When we write, our intent is to convey meaning (a high-level task), not to simply string together a set of characters. The brain generalizes the component parts of writing, such as letters and words. When we proofread our own work, our brain already knows the meaning we’re trying to convey, so it might gloss over details like spelling, punctuation, grammar, or word choice.2 That makes proofreading our own work less effective, since the details are precisely the things proofreading looks for but the brain generalizes.2 And this has nothing to do with intelligence or education, or even writing ability.

The brain’s capacity to seek meaning is very helpful, e.g., when we’re reviewing the substance and clarity of the message in a critical document such as a resume or CV, a sales proposal, a report to management, or a note in the medical record. It’s not as helpful when we’re proofreading those documents to eliminate typos so that the final text is professional and polished.

Typos Can Cause Real Harm

Here are just a few ways that typographical errors can and have caused great harm to businesses:

  • In a clinical environment, it’s not hard to imagine the harm that could result. A mistyped phone number or mailing address could potentially result in protected health information delivered to the wrong person, causing a HIPAA data breach. An error in a medication name or dose could be potentially dangerous to a patient if not caught.
  • In 2006, Alitalia Airlines suffered a loss of more than $7.2 million when nearly 2,000 travelers took advantage of a typographical error that listed a flight at $39 instead of the correct cost of $3,900.3
  • Spelling errors, improper grammar, and even misplaced punctuation on company websites can signal a lack of credibility and authority to search engines and site visitors. This can result in lower search rankings for a website and potential customers leaving the site for a more authoritative one.4

Proofreading Tips for Business Professionals

Not every writer has access to a full-time editorial team, so we need to employ techniques—and sometimes third parties—to help identify typographical errors. The proofing tools in word processors such as Microsoft Word are much better than they used to be (especially with grammar-checking features enabled to catch frequently misused words such as its and it’s). These tools are a good starting point, but they’re not sufficient on their own. They aren’t always available (or may not be as robust) in software such as an EHR or an online content management system such as WordPress. They also often overlook autocorrect fails, and they’re never available for printed text.

Some of these proofreading tips may be familiar from English classes in high school or college, but a little review won’t hurt. (For more proofreading tips like these see the MasterClass article “How to Proofread Your Writing: 5 Tips for Effective Proofreading.”)

1. Set It Down and Walk Away

Set the writing aside for as long as you can (preferably with an intervening night’s sleep). After a few hours or days, the brain will be less familiar with it, and should be better able to catch the more obvious typos.

2. Read It Aloud... and Backwards

Slowly reading the text out loud—being careful to enunciate each word—helps to identify typos we might otherwise miss, especially repeated and missing words. This will also help identify where the difficult passages are or where there is a lack of clarity. Writing that’s easy to speak is usually easy to read. Reading aloud is also a great way to identify autocorrect fails. Similarly, reading the text “backwards,” (from the last word to the first) one word at a time, divorces the text of meaning so obvious spelling errors are easier to identify. These techniques can be especially effective coupled with the first tip.

3. Look Out for Commonly Misused and Sound-Alike Words

Ensure correct use of words that sound alike but differ in spelling and meaning, such as the oft-confused they’re, there, and their; it’s and its; and too and to. As stated above, spellcheckers and grammar checkers are a great starting point, but they still miss some things. Also, systems that only check spelling may not detect misused words since they are correctly spelled, at least for another use. For example, their are two typos highlighted in this sentence, but its hard for spellcheckers alone to identify them as errors since the two words are spelled correctly, though used incorrectly.

Try these mental substitutions to test usage of these words. If the sentence is grammatically correct after making these substitutions, the usage is correct. If not, make the proper correction:

  • Mentally expand they’re to they are and it’s to it is.
  • Mentally replace too with also.
  • Mentally replace their with our and there with here.

4. Proof a Hard Copy of the Writing

Sometimes old school is effective. The eye strain of computer screens can cause us to miss some errors that we may catch on the printed page.

5. Request a Review by a Colleague

Colleagues who weren’t involved in writing the article won’t know what it’s supposed to say, so their brains will pay closer attention to details in order to to seek meaning. Subsequently, they will catch more typos. And if one reviewer is good, several are better. A group of colleagues in the office who write important documents could serve as proofers for each other. As a bonus, if they have a general understanding of the topic (but have never read the actual document), they could also identify places where the writing might not be clear, even if it is typo-free.

6. Use a Proofing Service

Because of the added costs and lead time, it’s probably not practical to pay for proofreading of every writing project. The cost might be worth it, however, for critical writing projects. For an additional fee, proofreading services may also offer substantive review services (and by subject matter experts when available), in which they review the writing for meaning and clarity beyond identifying typos.

 

If a piece of writing can impact professional reputation or a business’s bottom line, it’s well worth the extra time—and with third-party proofing services, the extra cost—to ensure error-free text. In combination with modern spelling and grammar checkers, using these proofreading tips with every writing project will boost your reputation as a writer and prevent the kinds of typographical blunders that can diminish your professional reputation and possibly your bottom line.

References

1. Matt Davis. MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. University of Cambridge. Untitled and undated article.

2. Nick Stockton. “What’s Up With That: Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos.” Wired. August 12, 2014.

3. Six Degrees. “The High Cost of Small Mistakes: The Most Expensive Typos of All Time.” May 11, 2015.

4. Sarah Berry. “Does Grammar Matter in Content Marketing?SEO.com. October 25, 2023.

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