How to check your writing - efficiently!
Do you hit the send button as soon as you have written an email - or do you sit and read it twenty times - or do you just stare at it for ages? For an efficient checking method, read on.
First, read through the eyes of your audience
When you have finished your first draft - of an email, a letter, a proposal or the result of six months' research - take a break. Of course the length of the break will need to be proportionate to the task, and may be only a minute or two - but it is no less important for that.
Now think about the person (or people) who are going to read what you have written. How much do you know about them? Imagine them reading it - are they going to be receptive to your message or resistent? What are they expecting, what do they need to know and what do they know already? What do they really care about and what makes them tick? How familiar are they with your industry jargon?
When you have got yourself thoroughly into their frame of mind, read your document through their eyes. Does it answer their question, does it come across with the right tone and is it likely to get the response you wanted? How is it going to make them feel, and is that the way it should be?
Make any changes you need to make now. Personally, being a rather direct speaker by nature, I almost always find that I add some niceties at the beginning of my emails as a result of this process. Instead of opening with "My training courses normally run over two days..." I insert "Thank you for your interest in my writing skills courses, and I enjoyed hearing about your company this morning..." That sort of thing.
I call this process reviewing.
Next, check the picky little details
Now for the really boring bit. Read through very slowly line by line and make sure that your writing is accurate and consistent.
1. Are there any spelling mistakes or typos (for example "from" when you meant "form" or the wrong kind of "principle" or "licence")
2. Have you written any sentences that are over 25 words long (about a line and half usually)or have you missed any of the little words like "of".
3. Are your bullets, headings and sub-headings formatted consistently? They are very visible and therefore disproportionately important.
4. Have you used any words that can be written different ways (capital letter or not on government; guide-lines or guidelines - there are hundreds of these)? If so, decide which one you want to adopt and do a find and replace on the alternatives.
5. Are names spelt right and have you carefully removed the names of the previous recipient of a document very like this one?
6. Have you used abbreviations consistently and explained them if the reader may be unfamililar with them.
This is the proofreading process
Use the Word processor when you can
The spelling and grammar checkers are by no means perfect but they are extremely useful. When you get a wiggly line, look carefully to see if you understand why. If not, just read extra carefully to make sure you are happy with what you have written. Never follow the grammar or spelling checker's suggestions without understanding them.
There are some little known resources hiding in Word's grammar checker including "readability statistics" which enables you to check your average sentence length. If you have trouble finding it, check this blog.
The find and replace function, already mentioned, is very handy but never select "replace all". Disasters of the most unthinkable kind lurk there - maybe you have an experience to share? An author I know changed his mind at the last minute about the name of his heroine, Lisa. Find and replace was the obvious solution - and 265 instances later, he sent the book to the publisher. Fortunately, the proof-reader was thorough and picked up a surprising reference to the famous smile of the Mona Carrie.
The separation matters, not the order
I have suggested here that you should review and then proofread. Actually, it doesn't matter which order you do these in as long as you don't try to do both jobs at the same time. Concentrating on one type of information at a time is critical or you will not be able to do either of them thoroughly.
If your document is a long one, say over five pages, it may be worth splitting the job into more subsections. For example, formatting might deserve separate attention - it depends on where the complexities are and what is important.
When you have thoroughly reviewed and proofread your document, send it. You can go on re-reading it of course - but the chances of spending your time productively are very low. You may stare at it for another hour and pick up one little error - don't. Your time is more valuable than that. Go and do something more useful.