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Proofread or perish

A proofreading error in 1631 could have changed the Bible’s Ten Commandments as we know it and highlights the importance of not leaving anything to chance when you’re about to sign off on any important piece of communication.

In 1631, a printer in London printed and distributed 1,000 copies of the bible. All was well until people started to discover that there was a mistake in the Ten Commandments. The word not had been left out of the seventh commandment and worshipers were subsequently instructed to commit adultery. King Charles I fined the printers and demanded all 1000 copies were burned but unfortunately seven copies did survive and the mistake remains for all to see.

Proofreading is just as essential to exacting your communications as the preceding editing processes such as the structure, language and copy editing which focus on diction, spelling, grammar, punctuation and stylistic errors (see levels of editing here).

When you have to convince a client, an employer or the public of your professionalism, you don’t want to be dismissed as second-rate or have the message you’re trying to communicate misrepresented by a mistake that could easily have been avoided if the document was given a thorough proofreading.
Even if your communication has been heavily edited and gone through the process of several drafts, mistakes can still be found.

If you set a high standard for all your external communications, don’t forget to do the same to your internal communications. Even two-word emails, quick memos or minutes of meetings should be given the same attention to detail as those seen by clients. Taking the time to proofread these seemingly inconsequential things reduces the chance to miscommunication and, as an added benefit, shows respect for the professionalism of the work environment.

There is a process and procedure to proofreading which will help reduce the risk of missing those minute mistakes that can be the difference between pretty good and perfection.

First, read the whole document once to get the ‘big picture’ and the make certain the message you’re trying to get across is the one that’s actually in the final document. While you’re doing this, scan for visual style, word division and word spacing. Remember, your document shouldn’t just be word perfect, but also visually perfect with consistent style and font.

Now it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty of proofreading and it will require several ‘reads’ of your writing to ensure you don’t miss anything. At each read, look for one type of error at a time – spelling, punctuation, grammar or style. Don’t just rely on spell or grammar checkers on your computer. Read your document aloud, one word at a time, and read exactly what is written on the page not what you think is written.

Communication with even a few errors makes the copy difficult to read and undermines your credibility. On the flipside, well written, accurate and easy to read communications, from an email to a memo, through to large documents, will not only convey a sense of professionalism but also the impression of a strong work ethic and an attention to detail.
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