Carrying on from a suggestion in yesterday’s Style Matters posting on missing punctuation, let’s look a bit closer at how writers can pick up more mistakes before their work is published.
When reporters or writers work on a story, they will often get an idea down in an initial draft, then they’ll hone it, rephrase parts of the story or move whole sentences or paragraphs around until they are happy with the overall “flow”.
That’s the macro view and it’s where we assume we make our stories work for our readers.
But the micro view is just as important and it’s often overlooked in the rush of adrenaline that comes with completing something, especially in a busy day or with an important deadline looming.
As copy editors will tell you, writers regularly submit work that contains typographical and spelling errors, entire words missing or correctly spelled words that are misplaced, misused or out of context.
So what’s the best way to overcome such annoyances?
I find that using all my senses works best, along with checking text in at least two different mediums, because then you find yourself picking up otherwise embarrassing errors and omissions before you hit publish or hand off your latest masterpiece for editing.
Sight & sound factors
We write on paper or screen. If the latter, try printing out your work and reading it aloud with a pencil in hand. If you detect something that needs changing, note the change on the paper immediately and then recommence reading aloud from the beginning of that paragraph or sentence.
The act of reading aloud draws your mind away from the overly familiar visual array you’ve been staring at during the drafting phase. Reading aloud also adds an aural check that helps test the ease of expression.
Taste & texture factors
If you stumble over certain words or phrases, further sculpting may be required.
If you’re still unsure after redrafting that you’ve created clean and effective copy, have a friend read the passage or entire piece aloud. They should be able to read it smoothly and comprehend it as intended.
In newsrooms, the first independent check beyond a reporter, if there still is one, is commonly known as “copy tasting”. It is at this stage that more senior writers may start fiddling with a reporter’s story to make it “sing”. Sub-editors will later check the copy for obvious errors and fit it into the page or online template.
Touch & smell factors
Does your story touch your audience? Is it accurate and logical throughout or does it smell a bit “fishy”?
Good copy editors will have their radar up and ready to pounce on dodgy logic, unchecked names or unverified facts, but time and resources these days are at a premium and the responsibility for such accuracy, increasingly, is falling back on the reporter or writer, especially those who find themselves filing breaking news stories for voracious digital editions.
For those who write for non-media publishers, the situation is little better. Book editors are under the hammer too and small errors can easily be missed. Where editors have to heavily correct small errors in a manuscript or there are significant late changes, some errors are bound to be introduced or overlooked.
Writers from both genres blanch when they see errors in their published work, and with good reason.
Audiences look at errors in print – or on screen – as an indication of “care factor”. They think: “If the writer didn’t care to get even small details correct, why should we presume their bigger “facts” are legitimate?”
And, unlike in the past, social media has opened up writers to instant criticism for the smallest foibles.
So the impetus to use all your senses as a writer to improve your work is evident if you want to avoid bloopers that cause a red face.