Why you shouldn't proofread your own work
And things to consider before hiring a professional.
I once did some editing of my website at the end of a busy day. I was tired but really wanted to get the changes done so I wouldn't have to think about it the next day.
Happily, and wearily, I hit 'publish'.
Before I trundled off to bed, I received a message from a family member saying that there was an error on one of my website pages and that it "could be misleading". The error was apparently on my fees page. I made a beeline for my laptop.
It took a few moments before I realised the mistake. My 'day rate' had become my 'date rate'. Yikes. Lesson learned. Never … ever … edit my website just before bed.
Thankfully, I was able to put things right before anyone noticed (I think), but that's not always possible, like when the error appears in print. And it's often the most obvious typos that get overlooked.
Errors can be costly, in more ways than one
Your customers or audience will occasionally forgive the odd error, usually where trust between both parties already exists. We take comfort in the fact that others can make mistakes as well.
Some well-known brands have been able to make light of their spelling faux pas, turning them into an opportunity to engage with their customers (Asos for example).
The consequences of incorrect hyphenation and unnecessary punctuation will probably go unnoticed when buried in your annual report, but what if you publish financial statements with errors in? What if the error is highly visible, like in a headline or a call to action on a web page? Your 'contact us' page could lose you potential new business because the email address or phone number is wrong.
There's no getting away from the fact that first impressions count.
Think about it. Would you click on a Google ad that had a spelling mistake in it? How would it make you feel about that company?
Sloppy spelling and grammar have the potential to undermine customer confidence and your reputation - and can even impact the bottom line.
The missing hyphen (or overbar) in the program code for NASA's 1962 Mariner 1 guidance system is a well-documented case in point. NASA had to give the destruct command a few seconds after launch as the interplanetary probe was veering off course. The cost of the error: $18.5 million ($156 million today). Ouch.
Thankfully, most errors don't cost millions.
The science behind the mistakes
The high-level task of writing means that it's easy for spelling and grammatical errors to be introduced. The author (maybe that's you) focuses on the message or point they want to convey.
However, when we proofread our own work, we miss potential typos and grammatical errors – focusing on the meaning of our words creates a blind spot to errors.
"The reason we don't see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads" says Tom Stafford, a lecturer in psychology and cognitive science at the University of Sheffield. In an article for Wired, Stafford explains the pitfalls of proofreading your own work and suggests making it look unfamiliar (by using a different font or background for example) or printing it off to edit. Or, you could hire a professional proofreader.
Get someone else to read your words
You've spent weeks crafting the copy for that annual report (or whatever). You've had input from all the necessary colleagues and departments and, after several rounds of iterations, it has finally been signed off.
Your content likely went through a few pairs of hands during the writing stage and it's now with the designer or typesetter to lay out on the page - another opportunity for errors to be inadvertently introduced. All those tables and graphics will also need an extra vigilant pair of eyes to spot any mistakes.
The more hands that a piece of communication goes through, the greater the margin for error.
Which is why savvy comms pros understand the value of hiring a professional proofreader to do a 'final eye' check.
But if you're going to hire a professional, I have some advice for you.
Professional standards to look for
Proofreading is a skill that many communications professionals develop throughout their career; it goes with the territory. Knowledge of the English language, being good at spelling and grammar are all prerequisites, but they are only part of the proofreading mix.
It requires deep concentration, sound judgement, and relentless attention to detail that many people find intolerable.
So what should you look for when hiring a proofreader?
The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading sets high standards for the profession (I'm an Intermediate Member). Its training is rigorous and tests even the most accomplished proofreaders and editors so it's worth consulting their directory of editorial services when you're looking to outsource. (Or contact us, ahem).
Of course, there are excellent proofreaders who aren't members of the CIEP so don't immediately discount them. Word-of-mouth recommendations and client testimonials should give you confidence that you're hiring the right person for the job.
What does a proofreader check?
Here's what you should expect a professional proofreader to pick up on at the final stage of production:
errors in punctuation that would create ambiguity or misunderstanding
inconsistently spelled words
incorrect running headers (headers that appear at the top of each page)
incorrect page numbers, including where they appear in a table of contents
errors in the numbering of footnotes/endnotes
incorrect captions and annotations
photos or images that are incorrectly positioned (upside down or obscuring text for example)
The decisions a proofreader makes require sound judgement. For example, at the final stage of the publishing process, a proofreader should not make significant text changes – that's the job of the copyeditor, earlier on in the process. Every change has a potential cost associated with it so keeping edits to a minimum is crucial at this stage.
How to get the best outcome
There are things you can do to help the proofreader to ensure your expectations are met.
Providing a brief is essential. Set out what's required and any supplementary materials they might need. For example, if you want the proofreader to check the final version of your text against previous edits then provide the original, edited version. If you have a house style guide or style sheet (that may have been created by the copyeditor for example), provide that too.
It's not uncommon for the proofreader to help the client craft the brief – it's in their best interests after all. An experienced proofreader will ask the right questions to help the client to establish what it is they really need (copy-editing vs proofreading for example).
Here's a final reflection that's based on personal experience. Having your carefully crafted copy scrutinised by an outsider instead of a colleague spares you, and them, any embarrassment if errors are missed. A professional proofreader will be tactful and non-judgemental in their efforts to make your copy the absolute best it can be.
Would you like help with proofreading? Contact us today.