Notice to online writers: proofread!

WritingWhen I was first starting out in this writing business, I read a lot about how to make money from writing. One person in particular kept stressing over and over that writing online is a business, and must be taken seriously as a business. Great advice, but all of her articles were riddled with typos and simple grammatical errors.

I tried to make allowances; English is not her first language. But then it wasn’t Vladimir Nabokov’s first language, either. Lolita may be a disgusting story, but he tells it with gorgeous prose. Perhaps you’re saying that his publisher provided a copy editor to catch and correct errors.

And that brings up a big problem with writing online. There are no copy editors. We writers must either proofread carefully ourselves or get someone else to do it for us. Now I confess that I don’t always proofread posts before they go live. When I read old posts, a typo or other mistake seems to leap off the page. I always correct it right away.

 

Typos and other word problems

Nowadays even the simplest word processor has a built-in spell checker. The first task of proofreading is fairly straightforward: look at all the places with red underlining.  The spell checker will mark everything that is not in its dictionary, including brand names and other things you may well have spelled correctly, but you should at least look carefully.

The next task of proofreading is less straightforward: looking for correctly spelled words that aren’t the ones you meant.

  • The word processor’s auto-corrections that result in a completely wrong word choice
  • Commonly misused words, such as there/their, its/it’s, that your brain knows how to use, but your fingers perhaps don’t.
  • All words with apostrophes. Do they belong, or did you write something like, “Egg’s: half price while supply last’s”?
  • Homonyms like sent/scent, summary/summery, magnet/magnate. They might seem as alike as to pees in a pot (oh! that’s supposed to be two peas in a pod, isn’t it?), but the wrong word distracts the reader from what you’re trying to convey.

Sentence problems

Microsoft Word and other sophisticated word processors flag grammatical errors as well. Again, the green underlining doesn’t mean that something is actually wrong with the sentence. You may intend to write a sentence fragment, especially in a list.

But it’s a place to start. Here are more things to look for:

  • Overly long, complex sentences.
  • Run-on sentences—independent clauses stitched together with too many coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, yet) or worse yet, comma splices.
  • Excessive use of passive voice.
  • Excessive use of forms of “to be” even if the sentence isn’t passive. Think of a way to use a stronger, less flabby verb.

Punctuation

  • punctuation marksDo you have commas wherever you need them, and nowhere else?
  • Have you used colons and semicolons where you need them?
  • How many exclamation marks, dashes, and ellipses can you simply delete?
  • If you have an opening parenthesis or quotation mark, do you have a corresponding closing one?

Once you know what kinds of mistakes you’re most likely to make,  you can clean up a lot of mistakes in your article in much less time than it will take someone else to read it.

If you can work far enough ahead that you can wait for several days to proofread, so much the better. You are less likely to see what you intended to write even if your fingers and the auto-correction conspired to write something else. But that gets into issues of time management. Sorry. I can’t help you with that!


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