I looked at the first half of the alphabet, from Apostrophes to Method, in Part One of this article – if you missed it, why not hop over and take a look?
Here I run through the second half, from Numbers to Zzz, so come on – join me in my alphabetical journey!
N is for …
Numbers. Check that you have been consistent in how you treat numbers across all your written copy. This includes dates, times and percentages. A common convention is to write out numbers one to ten, and then use figures for 11 upwards, except at the beginning of a sentence, when it’s always advisable to spell them out.
As there are no hard and fast rules about dates and times, the important thing is to be consistent; for example, you might decide to always write dates with the day first, then the month and full year: 12 June 2017. It’s more common nowadays to write the day without the –st, –nd, –rd or –th.
The same consistency applies to time: Have you used 12-hour or 24-hour clock? Are you using a.m. and p.m., or not?
This is when you should be checking what you’ve written against your style sheet. Don’t know what a style sheet is? Look below, under S, for an explanation and how to get my free guide to creating your own.
O is for …
Out loud. It’s always helpful to read out what you’ve written – it’s surprising what you will pick up. Not only will you discover missing or repeated words, you’ll pick up bigger issues, such as where a sentence is too long or convoluted (or isn’t actually a sentence at all), or where you’ve started a train of thought but somehow lost the thread halfway through a paragraph.
Just be considerate if you share an office! You could always use a text-to-speech program, such as the Speak feature in Word, and wear headphones.
Outside help. There are several reasons why you might benefit from bringing in someone to edit your writing. It may be that spelling and grammar aren’t your strengths, or that you don’t have time to do more than get down the bare bones of an article. My article Why your business needs an editor or proofreader, goes into more detail about the different types of help you can get.
P is for …
Punctuation. It’s easy to skip the nitty gritty of correct punctuation when you’re in the zone and the words are flowing. Which is absolutely fine. Just don’t forget to check it carefully once you’re done.
Have you started each sentence with a capital letter and finished with a full stop? It sounds too basic to mention, and I wouldn’t if it wasn’t something that I find myself correcting regularly. Do your questions actually have question marks? You’d be surprised how often they get left off.
Point size. If you increase the point size of the text you’re checking, this will force some words onto the next line and reflow the text, giving it a different look, making it feel ‘fresh’ to your brain. Because the words are in a different position on the page, your brain sees it as a new text and you’ll be more likely to catch errors.
Once you’re happy that you’ve caught everything, you can change the text back to your preferred point size. Altering the font has a similar effect – why not try changing both for a double whammy of freshness?
Q is for …
Quotes. If you have quoted someone, check that you’ve got the wording correct – don’t rely on your memory – and make sure you’ve put it inside quote marks. In British English, the convention is to use single quote marks, and double quote marks for quotes inside quotes: Denise said, ‘Overusing “scare quotes” is very annoying.’
Longer quotations which are displayed as a separate feature don’t need quote marks, and don’t forget to credit the source immediately beneath it.
R is for …
Ruler. Using a ruler below the line you’re reading when proofreading on hard copy is a useful way of forcing you to slow down and not skim through too quickly. It blocks what is coming next, so your brain can’t anticipate what words will follow and trick you into assuming that all the words are there and in the correct order!
References. If you’ve written a report or article which has references, checking them should be done as a completely separate task. You need to make sure that every reference cited in the text is in the reference list and, conversely, that everything in the reference list has actually been mentioned in the text. It’s surprising how often this doesn’t happen, usually because of sections being cut, or added later.
Once you’ve established that everything is present, check the actual references themselves to make sure they are all presented in the same way. There are many different referencing styles and conventions, depending on which field you are writing in, so make sure you know what is appropriate. If you have a lot of references and aren’t sure how to handle them, this is definitely an area where I would recommend you get professional help.
Remember, the purpose of a reference is to provide all the information the reader needs to find the source easily.
S is for …
Style sheet. A style sheet is your best friend for maintaining consistency across all your written content, whether that’s your website, your marketing copy or your annual report.
Decisions about how you capitalise, spell and hyphenate specific words, how you use numbers, and even which words are preferred or to be avoided, are all recorded on your style sheet.
Everyone who writes for your company should be using your style sheet – have you created one yet? If not, grab a copy of my free guide, Creating Your Style Sheet.
Spell checkers. Don’t forget to run your spell checker, but please don’t take everything it suggests as gospel. There are plenty of occasions when Word simply gets it wrong. However, it is useful for picking up typos and some grammatical errors, but it won’t catch everything.
For example, remember that it won’t know whether a word has been used correctly, only that it’s been spelled correctly, regardless of the context.
T is for …
Time. Wherever possible, give yourself enough time to write without the pressure of staring down a deadline, enough time to leave what you’ve written to give yourself some distance from it, and enough time to do a thorough check before publishing.
Of course, this is the real world that we live in, and time often feels like a luxury that’s in short supply. However, giving yourself enough time at each step in the process will greatly improve the quality of your writing. When we are rushed and under pressure we can be blind to the most obvious of errors, which unfortunately can be blindingly obvious to the first person who reads your text after it has been published.
U is for …
Underlining. Avoid using underlining in headings, or for emphasis. This is an old-fashioned style which is a hangover from the days when typewriters didn’t have an italic or bold function. It makes the text harder to read and can also be confusing in digital formats, as underlining is generally reserved for indicating hyperlinks. Butterick’s Practical Typography‘s entry for underlining has the subtitle ‘Absolutely not’.
V is for …
Voice. Does what you’ve written sound like you? If you lack confidence in your writing, or you aren’t clear about who your audience is, you can fall into an overly formal, stilted tone. This can be – whisper it – deadly dull. Boring. Bland. And guaranteed to have your reader clicking away to another website or dropping your brochure in the recycling bin.
It’s OK to sound like a real person when you write. Think about who you’re writing for, and when you’re reviewing be ruthless in getting rid of puffy, overblown, unnecessary wordiness.
W is for …
Worry. However much I want you to have perfect prose, I don’t want you to worry about it so much that you end up not publishing. Fear of making mistakes, or having them pointed out in public, is a big barrier to so many people who want to write, which I cover in my article Seven problems when starting a blog and how to solve them.
Write, review and publish. Be brave. Don’t worry about any typos you may have overlooked –everyone does it and it’s not the end of the world. I’d rather read your interesting, funny, entertaining or thought-provoking article complete with a couple of typos or grammatical errors than anything which is grammatically correct but dull as dishwater.
And the Grammar Police? Ignore them. They’re often wrong, anyway. Nice people draw your attention to errors in private, not in public, as my article Why the Grammar Police aren’t cool explains.
X is for …
X-rated. Oh, my! Is that a sweary word I see? Think very hard before using potentially offensive language in your writing. For some brands, and some demographics, it can be OK to sprinkle your copy with varying degrees of sweariness, and even drop the occasional f-bomb, but you have to judge that one extremely carefully, because you will offend people. Does it fit with your or your company’s image? More importantly, are you doing it to grab attention (a really bad idea), or because it’s who you are and you want to be authentic in how you present yourself to the world?
I wrote about editing swearing earlier this year. I don’t generally swear in my own writing, but I’ve no problem editing other people’s
– what do you think about it?
Y is for …
Yellow highlighting. OK so this is a bit of a stretch for Y! (if you have a better idea I’d love to hear it!)
Here’s an example for you. You’re taking a pass through your writing to check the headings and captions, and you notice a clumsy sentence or a fact you want to double check. Rather than stopping to deal with that issue, quickly highlight the text and move on. Of course, you don’t have to use yellow!
It’s important to stay in the zone for the type of check you’re doing at that point and not be distracted by things you should check on another pass.
Highlighting saves you from dealing with it now, or trying to remember to go back to it later. You can do a separate pass to deal with all the highlights at the end, tying up all the loose ends.
Z is for …
Zzz. Is what you’ve written actually interesting? Does it hold your attention? Are you excited to read it? If not, why are you publishing it? If it doesn’t do any of these things, and you’re the author, how can you expect it to grab your reader’s attention, never mind inspire them to act on what they’ve read?
You’re writing doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be good enough. And not good enough in a Meh, that’ll do, it’s kinda OK and at least I’ve written something way. But good enough in an I know it’s not perfect but I’ve got this great idea and I want to share it way.
And finally, my favourite keyboard shortcut, the editor’s friend:
CTRL+Z. This lifesaver is the shortcut for ‘undo’. If you meant to delete a word but accidentally deleted an entire paragraph – or the entire document (Oh yes, I’ve done that before now) – then this two-keystroke move makes everything OK again. Crisis averted. Sanity restored. Although maybe you need some chocolate. You know, for the shock of the near miss. Never a bad idea.
So there you have it. Part Two of my alphabetical journey through editing and proofreading. Have you found it useful? Did you learn something new that you plan on trying out? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear what works for you.