How do you ensure that you never look stupid in your haste to get messages out? Regardless of your personal beliefs about the world, humanity, religion or politics, the bottom line of all business communication is that God is in the details. In other words, if you're operating inside the corporate arena and you're writing stuff (no matter how short, informal or irregular) that other people read, perfect accuracy is part of your job.
“But who cares?” you ask. “People are too busy to notice the little things!” Not true, I'm afraid. When you commit a grammatical misdemeanor in an email, letter, memo, report, proposal or even a tiny text message, there's no going back. You've just gone on record as being either clueless or careless - and both are potentially damaging to you.
And here's the worst part. Your reader doesn't have to be an English teacher, a grammar boffin or a crossword puzzle-addicted troglodyte to spot your errors. Typos, spelling mistakes, inaccuracies and even lazy language usage have a way of dancing a little jig on the page or on the screen, and then grabbing the reader by the throat.
Bottom line? Even if you're in a mad rush to communicate your message, take whatever time there is available to check, check and double-check.
Now I don't expect you to read this advice and slavishly follow it. You've heard all of this stuff before, and it's easier said than done. But I do intend to equip you with a couple of tips so simple and easy to use - starting today, immediately - that you'll understand why people who write for a living, like me, just can't live without them. Here it goes:
1. Proof it cold
If you've just written something, it's floating around in your head and its edges begin to blur with time. So get a little distance. Get up from your chair (yes, actually rise), grab a coffee, chat to a colleague or visit the loo - and then come back and ‘proof it cold'.
2. The gift that is Google
If facts, figures, acronyms or names seem incomplete, don't add up or ‘sound funny', take a minute to check ‘em! Forget the dog; Google is the writer's best friend.
3. Spell-check is not always kind
Spell-check won't recognise a misused word that you spell correctly, e.g. “effect” where “affect” is appropriate. So always double-check your spell-check, which isn't clever enough to know if you mean “off” or “of”, “red” or “read”, or “organism” or “orgasm”.
4. Have a back-up plan
This is obvious, but critical: before cutting or re-writing anything, always make a copy of your original text. You'll need it if you chop too much or get entangled. I know this one seems a bit primary school, but I've chopped excessively in the past and it hurts.
5. Do what the dorks did
Whenever you scan your writing looking for errors, do what the dorks did when you were at school: use a ruler to help you to stay focused on individual sentences and words.
6. Read in reverse
Professional writers know that the brain can and does ‘auto-correct' its own mistakes, so that you don't see them the first few times you scan your text. This is why we often proof-read backwards, from bottom of page to top of page, to zone in on the details.
7. Use your ears
Okay, so you're not a professional writer. But you spend enough time listening to be considered a quasi-professional listener. So if you're confronted with a sentence that stumps you, read it out loud. Your ears (or other people's) will alert you to any errors.
8. And in the end...
Always double-check the last few paragraphs of a page or document. Your editorial brain knows it is approaching the last word and relaxes its vigilance with a drop in concentration - which is why most mistakes tend to sneak in towards the end.
To sum it all up
In a perfect world, you'd never have to edit your own work. But the world's not perfect. Life's not fair. Interest rates are up. Property prices are down. I won't go on. Either way, the decision is yours: spend a little time now, or spend a lot of time later trying to convince your boss to allow you to hold onto your job as a “pubic relations practitioner”.