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How to look stupid in one easy lesson

Nothing marks you out as uneducated or lazy faster than spelling mistakes. You’re insulting your reader if you send them a document with a spelling error. The subtext is, “I care so little about you that I haven’t even bothered to check my writing for spelling errors. You do it.”

And there’s no need. For a start, you have spell check. Or should that be smell-cheek?

For the sad fact is that even if you spell-check your work, you’re at the mercy of a piece of software that will let through any word that’s spelled correctly, even if it’s not the one you wanted. Here are just a few of the possible confusions it won’t pick up:

In/ion
Can’t/cant
We’re/were
From/form (my particular bugbear)
Except/accept
The/he/then

You have to proof-read

A notorious problem with spell-checking is our own feelings of busy-ness. You know, you’ve finally managed to crank out your first draft. Now all you really want to do is see the back of it. So you zip through it with spell-check, blithely (blindly?) accepting a ‘change all’ recommendation without looking at what you’re being offered. Happy to see ‘souls’ instead of ‘sales’? You might have to be.

So what’s the alternative? Unfortunately, it’s the time-honoured, and time-consuming, process of printing it out and proofreading it. I’ve had people almost shouting at me in workshops where I’ve suggested they print out and proofread emails.

These, though, are often the same souls (soles?) who are happy to email reports to their CEO with spelling mistakes in them. Go figure.

Fact is, if it’s important enough to write down, it’s important enough to proofread. Can’t be bothered? Pick up the phone. Nobody can HEAR how you spell. Or, to put it another way, would you like your ignorance and/or sloth plastered on a billboard outside your office with your name at the bottom?

I thought not. So here’s my bullet-proof, cast-iron, gold standard for proof-reading.

Five steps to error-free copy

  1. Print out your document
  2. Start at the back and work to the front.
  3. Start at the bottom and work to the top.
  4. Start at the right and work to the left.
  5. Use a white piece of paper to mask off the preceding line.

This technique destroys your brain’s ability to make sense of a piece of text. You force your brain to consider it one word at a time. By slowing yourself down to the pace you last managed when you were six, you see each word separately and you WILL catch the errors.

What if I’m not a good speller?

Not everybody is. It doesn’t matter. You just have to be a good checker. And here’s another tip.

Buy and use a good dictionary. I use the Concise Oxford; colleagues in the US are probably more familiar with Webster’s.

If you’re not sure how to spell a word you want to use, look it up. It’s a great habit to get into and one that has the by-product of increasing your vocabulary.

Of course, I could also argue that if you want to use a word so unfamiliar that you don’t know how to spell it, maybe you should be searching for a simpler alternative.

And my point is?

Deep down, and quite close to the surface, I believe that spelling errors are LESS important than those involving punctuation. Your meaning is usually unaffected by the former but can be reversed by the latter.

Having said that, most people find it easier to spot spelling errors, and they will usually draw the same conclusion: you’re uneducated and/or lazy. Neither is particularly helpful. Make a habit of checking your work both using software and your eyes.

Categories: Editing, Freelance life, and Maslen on Marketing.

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