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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

8 Things to Check When Proofreading Anything

Everyone knows that it’s important to proofread materials in the midst of the job search, as well as in workplace communications. And that seems like a pretty easy task; after all, you’re just giving your writing one more look-over, right?

Well, not quite. To be done well, proofreading takes a little more time and effort than a quick last read-through.

In fact, basic spelling and grammar is only the start. Below, I’ve used my editorial expertise to walk through all the things you really should be checking for when you proof (that most people forget). Use it as a sort of checklist next time you’re looking over documents or emails before hitting “send.”

1. Basic Spelling and Grammar

Hey, I said it was the start. It seems simple, but tiny spelling and grammar mistakes can seriously tarnish the impression of whatever you’re sending. So, begin by carefully making sure you’ve put periods in their places, you’ve used the correct version of commonly confused words, and you haven’t accidentally misspelled something that spell check doesn’t recognize.

Pro tip: Unsure of a grammar rule? Check out Grammar Book or Grammarly for help. Or, if it’s so confusing that you have to look it up, it may be worth simplifying the sentence to remove the issue entirely.

2. Proper Nouns

This is something that people often forget when they’re looking over the spelling in their work: Take a look at proper nouns to make sure they’re spelled correctly. If an executive has a long and complicated name (or even one that could be spelled multiple ways, like Smith or Smyth), do a quick search on Google or in the employee directory to make sure you’ve spelled it correctly. Do the same thing for company names, job titles, and locations.

Pro tip: While you’re at it, also check to see if companies follow weird usage rules for their names, like all lowercase letters or several words combined without spaces—these are easy to get wrong but could be a bad mistake, especially if you’re emailing with someone from that company. A great example of this is onefinestay, which doesn’t have a capital letter and puts three words together in one.

3. Verb Tenses

Verb tenses are annoying since, a lot of times, there’s a huge discrepancy between how people speak and write and how proper grammar says you should speak and write. Read over your sentences again to make sure you’re not mixing up verb tenses or using multiple tenses within the same sentence (this often happens in sentences where you’re listing out multiple actions).

Pro tip: The OWL at Purdue has a handy-dandy verb tense cheat sheet so that you can see how different verb tenses relate to one another.

4. Sentence Structure

Take a look at the length of your sentences. Do you notice a lot of commas, semicolons, and conjunctions? Some of your sentences might be run-ons, so see if you can clean them up by making them shorter. Remember: Sometimes it’s better to break things up and know everything is readable than to try hard to sound impressive and end up confusing your reader.

Pro tip: A lot of professionals tend to use too many semicolons (guilty as charged). To write more clearly, try getting rid of a few of them and creating stand-alone sentences.

5. Formatting

This can be especially crucial if you’re sending in a resume or cover letter. Look at your document as a whole (or have someone else do it), and critique how it looks. Are the margins too wide? Is the font too small or difficult to read? Could you be using bold text to make anything easier to skim? You want the piece you’re sending to look just as good as it sounds.

Pro tip: A general rule I like to follow is to never use more than two formatting tricks (bold, italics, underlining, funky margins, small font) in the same document. Speaking of bold, italics, and underlining, never use more than one at a time. Bolding and underlining something in a document doesn’t make it look extra important; it makes you look crazy.

6. Consistency

Make sure that your writing is consistent throughout, especially if you’re using numbers, symbols, or contractions. For example, do you say “coworkers” and “co-workers” in your work? Decide on which one you’d like to use. Are you using “%” or “percent” to talk about stats in your resume? Neither is wrong, but it’s important to pick one and use it consistently throughout.

Pro tip: If you’re getting decision fatigue from making all these tiny choices over consistency, just follow the rules of AP style used by most journalists.

7. Idioms

If you’re using figures of speech, make sure you’ve actually used them correctly. For example, people often mix up “once in a while” and “once and a while,” as well as “couldn’t care less” and “could care less.” Google any figures of speech before you send them off to make sure they’re A-OK.

Pro tip: If you go the Google route, I highly recommend looking at multiple sources (at least four or five) to make sure everyone is in agreement on what the idiom is. I once Googled a figure of speech, and it turned out that the first search result on that particular idiom was totally wrong—oops.

8. Overall Flow

Especially after you’ve edited and tweaked your work, it’s easy for it to start sounding disjointed or incoherent. So, once you’ve done one pass of proofreading, make sure it all flows together logically, with easy-to-follow transitions.

Pro tip: Try reading your work slowly out loud to notice any issues with how your writing sounds. If you feel comfortable doing so, see if you can read it out loud to someone else, too. A lot of times, other people pick up on small issues that you think are fine but that read differently to others.

Proofreading is about more than just finding errors; it’s about making sure all of your ducks are in a row and that the tiny things match up.

Bottom line? Be a details master.

Photo of pencils courtesy of Shutterstock.