Surviving a word tsunami


By Joe Diorio

In 1985 IBM gave each of its 430,000 employees a business card-size document listing all the company holidays (New Year’s Day through to Christmas) for the coming year. This was pre-internet so there was no web page for that information. Everyone who worked for the company, therefore, could look at this card and see that one of the holidays for the upcoming year was Thanksgiving, which would be on THURDSAY, November 27.


Typos happen to all of us. Sometimes they’re more prominent than others. “It’s you versus a tsunami of words,” a supervisor once told me. “Eventually, one that’s spelled wrong is going to get past you.”

We should all have such an understanding manager. Today there is texting, social media, and 24-hour news cycles so that tsunami of words is bigger than ever. We need a plan to proofread our writing. Here’s one systematic way to do that.

For starters, the moment you finish writing something put it aside. Time is your friend, even if a deadline is breathing down your neck. Play a round of solitaire on your smart phone. Anything other than looking at what you wrote. Sandie Giles, author of How to Proofread Your Own Writing, says impatience and familiarity are two factors that are detrimental to your ability to proofread. A bit of separation can help you catch that errant mistake.

Next, plan on reading your document at least four times, looking for specific things each time. Do not just say “I’ll carefully proofread it.” HOW will you do the proofreading? A plan spells out several reads you should do for your document and identifies what you will read and what you should look for.

First pass – misspellings. A colleague who worked for the Associated Press said he reads with the assumption that every word is misspelled. While you may not have to be that xtreme (See what I just did there?) focus exclusively on how each word is spelled.

Second pass – punctuation. Do you have the period or other punctuation inside or outside quote marks? (Hint: they go inside.) Is that semicolon necessary, or can you break the sentence in two? Quick mea culpa. I love using semicolons. It makes me think I’m smarter than I really am.

Third pass – formatting. A generation ago Strunk and White in The Elements of Style advised us to “choose a suitable design and hold to it.” Are any subheads you use formatted consistently? Is each paragraph indentation the same? In lists do you use bullets or numbers? And in those lists are you using parallel construction with an action verb to start each point (as in “build,” “wait,” “stop,” etc.)?

Fourth pass – have someone else read it. I have several friends and colleagues who proofread my monthly newsletter, A Few Words About Words, to be sure it’s right. And occasionally mistakes do get through.

Professional communicators put a lot of effort into their messages. How those messages are proofread is the final step to make our work successful.

Let’s write – and proofread – carefully out there, people.

(Joe Diorio is a freelance writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. You should tell your friends and colleagues about him.)

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