Avoid Writing Pitfalls, Tips for DIY Proofreading

We need to take care with our words. People always notice when we do not.

Has it ever taken you hours to write an email or article?

Some of the reasons we are afraid to hit “Send” is our words have so many opportunities to fail in their mission. They could appear:

  • incoherent, ignorant, or both
  • hard to understand
  • inflammatory
  • all of the above

And yet the stress associated with writing the perfect message makes us all wish it were over already. I suspect that fatigue is how mistakes easily slip through.

I am here to help! Each bullet above is covered below, with tips of how to avoid looking foolish, being unclear, or coming across as too aggressively.

INCOHERENT OR IGNORANT:

It is hard for me to read anything online without discovering errors. I cringe when I find errors. The most common ones I see are missing words, confused words, and train of thought collisions.

Missing words: These seem to occur because the writer’s thoughts are doing 65-70mph, while their fingers are doing 35mph on the keyboard.

CATCH IT & CORRECT IT: Once I have a draft created, I take the time to read over the words slowly, mouthing each word as I read it. The process forces me to stop reading when the word is not there. For instance, “The sentence sounded terrible because a was missing.” Or, one of my favorite jokes, “this sentence no verb.” When the word is missing, put it in. “The sentence sound terrible because a word was missing.” There.

Confused words: The writer typed “in” when they meant “is”. They typed “secret” when they meant “secure”. One that made me laugh out loud was “unpresidented” instead of “unprecedented”.

CATCH IT & CORRECT IT: First I create a draft. Then I take the time to read over it slowly, mouthing each word as I read it. I am forced to stop reading when the wrong word is there. If I have a hunch, but I am not sure if it’s a good one, or I am doubting the spelling, I Google it or consult Dictionary.com. Google’s search field asks “Cannot find <your query>. Did you mean ____?” And Dictionary.com will ask me to confirm the word if it cannot find it in its records. Usually, yes, their suggestion is what I meant.

Train of thought collisions: The writer was fixing their sentence or changing their wording, but they got distracted. They never came back to their half-fixed fragments. No one else caught it either, and the story was submitted that way.

CATCH IT & CORRECT IT: if I am correcting a hard copy, I use a highlighter or post-it tab tape to mark my place. I also use check marks to indicate the change was made, 100% fixed. If I am proofreading onscreen, I find highlighting or changing the text color where I stopped let’s me know where to start. I change the color back to black, and keeping working.

HARD TO UNDERSTAND OR FOLLOW (A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE POINT):

Sometimes communication’s failure is not typos, but an overall failure to get to the point. In that vein, I remember two terms from Toastmasters: the double-clutch and the false start.

  • double-clutch is repeating the same words, like a car trying, but failing to start up.
  • false start is starting to speak, but then awkwardly pausing, changing my mind about where I was going with that. Or maybe thinking aloud about what I want to say, or randomly speaking out of nervousness and not getting anywhere.

These errors are not just found in public speaking. It is possible to fumble like this in writing as well. For example, writing a quick note and including too much small talk after a basic greeting. People stop reading if an email rambles, is stream of consciousness, or provides information overkill. If too much information is provided, how will the recipient know what’s really the highest priority right now? They will not, and they will not keep trying to figure it out either.

CATCH IT & CORRECT IT: The longer I have known someone, or the more comfortable I am communicating with them, the easier it is to babble. As Blaise Pascal said, “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

Pascal was writing in longhand. Today we do have time to go back and make it shorter without scribbling words out. If I reread a message before sending and see a lot of babble, I delete the babble. I replace it with “hey we have catching up to do” or “I have a lot to share since we saw each other last”. I ask if I can catch up over a meal, a beverage, a phone call, or a Skype call. Hopefully they say yes. If they say no, I say thanks, have a great week, and move on.

INFLAMMATORY:

I saved what I think is the hardest for last. I see myself as a serious, focused worker in an office environment, a no-nonsense personality. For years I felt it saved everyone’s time to just be direct. But for some people, direct can be offensive. How do I know this? I have seen it.

Tone of voice, volume of voice, poise, and eye contact are just four of the factors interpersonal communications have that texting and email do not. These factors have a bigger impact on what we have to say than any of us might realize. Our appearance, our disposition, and our extroversion/introversion, and how much we resemble the person we are talking to, all play a role in our communications.

When you or I only receive others’ words and mannerisms, it is hard to imagine what it is like for them to receive ours.

With just text to read, words come across with more intensity. Is it because the words are doing all the work? Maybe. Is it because the person I have a problem with has a personality I do not gel with already? Yes, that is possible. In a work situation, people are very stressed about their jobs. They are a little more sensitive to criticism than they might be about other parts of their life.

CATCH IT & CORRECT IT: In a conflict, I think it helps to write out what we would really want to say in Notepad or a text program that has no send button, then close the window (X) without saving it. If I am asked to save, I click “no thanks” or “cancel”. The negative feelings got out, but no one got burned.

I would offer to handle this situation in an in-person meeting or phone call with a supervisor or mediator-type party. Even if you are, like me, introverted, and in-person is not your most comfortable communication style.

If an in-person meeting is not an option, then I would write out the situation as gently as I can, and say as little as possible. Approach it like a mystery, not an open and shut case. I would not use ALL CAPS. Then I would save the draft, and turn off, or at least darken my screen. If I feared prying eyes, it would be prudent to lock my computer.

Then I would step away for a minute. Take the stairs. Walk outside. Think of something positive to distance myself from the situation. Spouse. Family. Children. Beloved pets. Friends who like me for who I am. The fact I can apply for other work.

Then I would come back, take a deep breath, and try to read the message as if I were receiving it from someone else. As if I am the unsuspecting offender instead of the one being offended. How would I receive the words on the screen? What rewording is necessary? What if this was all unintentional, or based on a misunderstanding? How would I choose my words if that was the case? I make the changes I feel are necessary. I reread the whole thing one last time. Then hit send.

It is worth being delicate and careful with confrontations, especially in the workplace. From what I have seen, if the accuser is quick to get angry or point fingers, they will branded a bully on some level. It does not matter how accurate he or she may be about what happened, who did it, or why it happened. As Maya Angelou noted, People tend to forget what we said, but not how we made them feel. They may even forget what happened, but they still don’t forget their feelings.

In closing, we need to take care with our words; people always notice when we do not. I hope this post has helped remedy DIY Proofreading and Awkward Written Language Situations. If you have more editing or proofreading than you have time for, do not hesitate to contact me.

Did I forget an error you see all the time? What are the errors see online when you are trying to read?

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