Seven Principles of Proofreading Business Writing Every Business Writer Should Know
Business writers often struggle with finding the time to proofread business documents, especially email. Typos and poorly written sentences show up in documents with startling regularity. However, the following seven easily applied principles for proofreading business writing can help business writers ensure their documents are error free.
Proofreading Principle 1:
Proofread all your business documents
You already have too much to do. Every day, you experience continual interruptions, but know you have to complete your work accurately and quickly. You’re overloaded with work and feel you just need to finish your email, memo, letter, or report and get it out so you can go on to your next task.
However, if you send out documents with typos or errors in grammar, punctuation, spelling, word usage, and sentence structure, your readers will feel you’re careless about your work. Quality and precision are important qualities any supervisor looks for in an employee worth promoting and any upper-level manager looks for in a lower-level manager to advance in the organization. You present yourself as a professional in every document you send. Make sure it represents you well.
Proofreading Principle 2:
Allow sufficient time for proofreading
Allocate time to proofread every document at least once, including emails. Think of the proofreading time as the final step in writing your business document, just as considering what to write is the first step. Don’t send a document with your name on it without being sure it is as correct as you can make. When you have read through your document carefully without finding an error, it is ready for you to send. Highly accurate proofreading takes concentration and time.
Proofreading Principle 3:
Use a proofreading mindset.
After you finish an email, memo, letter, or report, shift into the proofreading mindset for a few minutes. The proofreading mindset requires the following:
- Take a serious attitude toward proofreading and a critical attitude toward all written communication. Do not permit errors to pass by you.
- Assume that there are errors in the document. Your job is to find them. Do not be tolerant of anything but perfection. Be skeptical of anything that might be incorrect. Assume that anyone else typing or working with the manuscript has made errors that you must find. Even the best writers make mistakes.
- When you are ready, decide to go into the proofreading mindset. It requires concentration and mental energy to stay in the proofreading mindset, but let your mind know that you won’t be forcing it to concentrate for an unending period.
- If you lose concentration, pause, then move back into the proofreading mindset before continuing. Don’t allow your mind to wander in other directions. Eventually, you will condition yourself to stay in the proofreading mindset until you decide to leave it.
- If you have a distraction, stop, take care of the distraction, and then continue. Don’t try to proofread while you are distracted. Mark the place where you stopped so you are sure to return to the right spot.
Proofreading Principle 4:
For email and other onscreen documents, follow a set procedure to proofread.
For e-mail, notifications, and other documents the reader will read onscreen, follow this procedure after you have edited the document to produce a final draft.
- Consider writing the document in Microsoft Word first, proofreading it there, and pasting it into your email program. Word has more sophisticated spelling and grammar aids that will help you. If you normally have usage or grammar errors in your writing, you really should write your documents in Word, then paste them into the program you’ll be using to send the documents.
- Use your spell checker. You should have the spell checker set to check spelling before you send the document, but you should also do a spell-checker check before you do your own manual check. The reason is that the spell checker will find some errors, but not others. “Eye wall sea ewe win aye calm Sundae” doesn’t have a single word spelled correctly, but your spell checker would note none of the errors.
- Eliminate as many distractions as possible. You can’t control office noise, but you can turn off your radio or email notification sound.
- Read every word, from the subject line through your email address of phone number at the end. Don’t skip parts. Proofread capitalized words, Web addresses, street addresses, and phone numbers.
- Get to know the areas where you have the greatest problems. Double-check them.
Proofreading Principle 5:
Follow a structured procedure as you proofread.
Don’t read for meaning when you proofread. To get you out of the mode of reading as you would normally read, follow the procedure in the list of steps below. Imagine you’re proofreading this text:
- Read word by word. Don’t slide over the text in gulps. Read each word one at a time, like this:
The consultant . . . prepared . . . a report . . . on the feasibility . . . of changing . . . our software . . . system . . . without . . .
- After you finish a line or sentence, backtrack and read phrases. You read the words in the first example above. This is what you would see as you read phrases:
The consultant prepared . . . a report on the feasibility . . . of changing our software system . . . without much expense . . .
This procedure may seem time-consuming, but as you become accustomed to it, your eyes will take you to the words and phrases effortlessly, reading the words, then the phrases:The consultant . . . prepared . . . a report . . . the consultant prepared a report . . . on the feasibility . . . of changing . . . our software system . . . on the feasibility of changing our software system . . .
- If the sentence is longer or is complicated, read the entire sentence again looking for sentence errors.
- Watch for unusual or special words you must check twice. You might see “effect,” which is often confused with “affect.” Look twice at it. You might see “manpower,” which might be “man power.” If you have any doubts, look it up in the dictionary. Use your dictionary regularly. In this case, “manpower” is one word.
- Look at punctuation specifically. You might see, “it was possible—but would not guarantee,” with a dash in it. Look twice at that. Is the dash the longer em dash —, or is it just a hyphen -? Is this the appropriate place for an em dash? If you have doubts, don’t use the punctuation or look up the rule in your grammar textbook.
- You might see this sentence: “Her report was an eye-opener; it made me think twice.” It has a semicolon. That’s an unusual punctuation mark that causes business writers problems. You must have a complete sentence on either side of the semicolon. Double-check that.
Proofreading Principle 6:
For documents you will send out on paper, print out the document and proofread the printed copy
- The place at which you proofread should be well lit and have a clear, flat area on which you can lay the manuscript.
- Eliminate as many distractions as possible. You can’t control office noise, but you can turn off your radio or choose to proofread in an office that is quieter and more secluded. You may need to close your office door to prevent interruptions.
- For longer documents, have someone answer your phone while you proofread in a secluded area.
- Consider asking someone to assist in proofreading. Another set of eyes will locate things you may miss.
Proofreading Principle 7:
For longer documents such as reports, have proofreading tools handy.
For longer documents, such as reports, proposals, manuals, and so on, print out the copy you will send and proofread it. Have a quiet place to proofread if you can establish one. Within arm’s reach, in plain sight, have the following:
- Reading glasses (Consider trying the magnifying spectacles available in drugstores. You may be surprised at how they improve your ability to see print.)
- A ruler
- Colored pencils
- An online calculator if the document contains figures
- Legal or medical dictionary if appropriate
- Standard online dictionary
- Grammar textbook
- Bibliography style manual of your choice