We’ve all seen it. We’ve even all done it. The typo, the doubled or omitted word, the malaprop. At best, it’s a barely noticeable oversight; at worst, you’ve become a hilarious “editing fails” meme. Whether you’re editing your own writing or someone else’s, we have some tips to help prevent “sloppy copy” and make your content as clean and professional as possible.
Create a checklist. Just as a pilot won’t take off before going through their checklists, you shouldn’t launch your copy without one. Some pieces may have dozens of font and color variations for different sections, British spellings that need to be americanized, subsections to renumber, or an old product name that needs to be updated throughout, in addition to all the basic copy editing. With a checklist specific to each project, you’re a lot less likely to overlook something. Unlike with airplanes, your life isn’t typically at risk due to an editing slipup (depending on who you’re working for, I guess), but your professional reputation certainly is.
Style guides. Have a good style guide handy for when you can’t remember the “only comma” rule or whether you’re supposed to use dashes or en-dashes between numbers. Good choices are The Chicago Manual of Style Online or the AP Stylebook. For a witty, fascinating, and very helpful guide, Dreyer’s English by Random House Copy Chief Benjamin Dreyer can’t be beat.
The human touch. While spell- and grammar-checking programs can be a big help, don’t rely on them exclusively. They may not flag words or constructions that are correct in and of themselves, but not what you meant to say—like the recent book that had a man lying “prostate” on the ground.
(Name) check, please! There’s nothing more embarrassing than misspelling the name of your client’s company or CEO, or any person or place referenced in your piece. A quick internet search, or double checking with your client, will help confirm whether it’s Kirstin or Kristin, what her exact title is, and that the company does indeed use all lowercase letters for their name.
House style? Make sure everyone on your team is aware of the style and tone your client wants you to use. Are there certain terms they prefer (or prefer to avoid)? How do they feel about the series (Oxford) comma? It will save a lot of time and frustration—and revision rounds—if everyone is on the same page from the beginning.
(Proof)read aloud. Your tongue will catch the mistakes your eyes tend to skip over when reading silently. Two “the’s” in a row or a missing “a” will be more obvious if you’re reading every word out loud.
Third time’s a charm. It’s unlikely you’ll catch all errors on the first pass. Read through first for obstacles to fluency and flow—wordiness, repetitive “pet” words, and the like. Then read again, aloud, looking at each word to check for typos, missing/doubled words, punctuation, and spacing. Finally, give the piece a once-over to make sure the format is consistent (Is one header in italics and another bold? Do some subsections have numbers and others letters? Is the spacing between sections the same?). Having one focus for each pass helps you catch those easy-to-miss errors.
Too many cooks. When a piece goes through several revision rounds, especially if multiple teams are reviewing it, mistakes have a way of sneaking in. Spacing issues, subsections that are no longer consecutively numbered, missing punctuation, or capitalization errors may crop up. Always give a final proofread before you publish or pass the piece back to the client.
An occasional error may slip by even the most fastidious of editors, but armed with a checklist, these best practice tips, and some attention to detail, you’re a lot more likely to have satisfied clients—and a lot less likely to end up on an internet editing wall of shame!