How I ended my career in publishing before it started (and why you should always proofread your work)

By Louise Shanahan – 9 October 2017

How to proofread your writing

I hit refresh on my inbox for the bazillionth time. Nothing.

And again. Refresh refresh refresh. Nothing.

I was in pre-graduation purgatory, looking for post-university employment. Recession was on the horizon, so I was open to pretty much anything that wasn’t another unpaid internship or my old summer job, selling tartan scarves and whisky and listening to the Last of the Mohicans soundtrack on repeat.

“How about training as a physiotherapist or podiatrist?” my careers advisor had suggested. Not what I had in mind as a philosophy graduate, but hey.

“Okaaay, if you don’t like the sound of those [unrelated but no doubt fulfilling roles, requiring at least 5 years’ additional study], how about publishing?” she said, apparently having opened the Careers Advisor Handbook at ‘P’.

Now, publishing seemed like a good fit. I imagined that being an editor would involve spending long, luxurious afternoons reclining on a chaise longue, sipping expensive coffee whilst surrounded by stacks of award-worthy books, their literary delights waiting patiently within for my attention and approval. (What can I say, I was 22.)

I’d typed up my résumé and crafted the perfect cover letter, tailoring it carefully for each of the 20 or so publishing companies on my list. I was sure it would only be a matter of time before I was snapped up. Ah, the naïveté of youth.

Refresh. Still nothing.

Refusing to be beaten, I scoured Google for new leads. Digging out the cover letter again, I read through, wondering why none of these publishing fish were biting.

Dear Sir/Madam [that’s how we rolled in 2006.]

I am writing to you because I am interested in pursuing a career in pubishing.

[WAIT. WTF??]

I have always – [NO ONE CARES. NO ONE IS STILL READING. THEY’RE LAUGHING INTO THEIR FANCY, OVER-PRICED COFFEE AS THEY TOSS THIS IN THE TRASH FOLDER LIKE THE TRAGIC PIECE OF RUBBISH IT IS.]

So yeah, that was my short-lived career in publishing.

Proofreading is important. Who knew?

There’s an obvious lesson here, isn’t there?  PROOFREAD YOUR WRITING.

Whether it’s a cover letter or a blog post, your writing is your digital salesperson. Think of your website as your online storefront. Your blog is your virtual billboard. They’ve got to make a good impression.

Glaring typos and lazy grammar have the same effect as turning up to an in-person meeting with cappuccino froth on your lip. No one’s going to want to point it out, and you’ll be left wondering what went wrong as people nod politely and hurry away. It doesn’t mean your product is sub-par, but it’s not exactly an advert for competence.

Not only can typo-riddled content kill your credibility, but errors can damage sales. I’m not talking about accidentally omitting a zero from your rates page, although that certainly won’t help. Internet entrepreneur Charles Duncombe reports that even a single spelling mistake can cut online sales by 50%! Worth a quick once-over, no?

And what about SEO? How will Google find your amazingly helpful blog post if you’ve misspelt your keywords? It’s a no-brainer. Proofread.

Don’t make your customer cringe and click away.

But don’t be a grammar bore

I’m not saying you need to unleash your inner grammar pedant and slash and burn every stray comma. In the brave new digital world of emojis and 140-character communications (or 280, or whatever it is now), there’s a certain amount of flexibility allowed when it comes to grammar and punctuation. Language and grammar evolve over time, and communities and cultures use them differently.

If you want to connect with readers like you’re speaking to them face to face, your writing has to sound like how you speak. Sometimes that means starting sentences with ‘and’ or ‘but’. And that’s fine.

The aim is to be understood. You don’t want awkward-but-accurate grammar constructions disrupting the flow, so it doesn’t have to be perfect. As long as it doesn’t read like you’ve just discovered texting, you’re fine.

But there’s a line, isn’t there? Mistakes look unprofessional and careless. Believe me, I know. Don’t let your website go into meetings with froth on its lip by playing it fast and loose with spelling and punctuation.

How to proofread your own work

Proofreading is actually one of my favourite bits of the writing process. The stress of the blank page is gone and the wrangling of clumsy word choices resolved. It means I’m oh-so-close to hitting publish.

It’s a two-stage process. Firstly, I want to make sure that the message is clear, get rid of any boring clichés, and tighten up the tone of voice. I’ll cut words wherever possible and maybe change the order around if it reads better.

Then, it’s time for a final proofreading polish.

Here are my top tips if you’re proofreading your own writing:

  • Take your brain elsewhere. Go for a walk, wait until the next day, watch an episode of OITNB. Just get some space between finishing writing and starting to proofread.
  • After you’ve done your first round of editing, hit spellcheck. This is the easiest way to pick up any errors. Make sure you have the right version. US or UK English? I find the basic spellcheck tool in Word sufficient, but there are a gazillion apps that do this and more – check out Grammarly or Hemingway Editor (no affiliation).
  • Print out your article or change the font or colour and read it again.
  • Read it backwards. Reading forwards, your brain can make subconscious corrections. Reading backwards helps you focus on individual words.
  • Read it aloud. If something’s clumsy to say, chances are it’ll have your readers tripping up too. Using text-to-speech is another useful (and hilarious) tool – you can sit back while ‘Daniel with British Accent’ does all the work, and you’ll hear any missing words or typos.
  • Get someone else to do it! Ask a friend or find a proofreading buddy to swap with. You’ll soon find out if what you’ve written matches what you thought you were saying in your head. And of course, getting a professional to give your words a once-over is a stress-free way to finish the job properly. (*waves*)

So, proofreading is essential, but doesn’t have to be tedious. That panicky feeling you get before sending your post out into the world could be a thing of the past.

Does your copy need a little shine? Give me a shout!

Photo credit: mari lezhava via Unsplash

 

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