Archive for the ‘Writing bloopers’ Category

Even Mitt Romney needs a Proofreader

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

Typos are oh-so-easy to make—and so much harder to catch. Case in point: a gaff in a recent Mitt Romney campaign app went viral when it urged people to stand with Mitt for “A Better Amercia.” OUCH.

NBC Nightly News had a good one recently, too: “The Propsal.” You’d think an organization of that caliber would catch that. Alas, no. Why?

News outlets are striving to survive in an increasingly paperless world. So they’re sending copyeditors out their back door while ushering web designers in their front door. (Expect to see more typos. Not that web designers can’t read, but copyediting isn’t their thing—or their job description.)

The New York Times recently had a tongue-clucking headline, too: “Black, White, and Moron [Mormon] all Over.”

So many words in the English language differ by only one letter or can get screwed up by moving one letter. For example:

  • Steakholders (must need really big forks)
  • Frothcoming (watch for overfilled beer mugs)
  • Monkey/money (monkey laundering?)
  • Contact/contract (contact negotiations–to just hold hands?)
  • Pool/poll
  • Man/mean
  • Brain/bran
  • Dear/dead
  • Native/naïve

You get the picture.

Most people would admit (if pressed) that no one can read something he or she wrote as well as someone else can. But maybe there’s no one around to copyedit or proofread for you—and you have a big presentation, report, or grant application on the line. What do you do?

Learn how to do it yourself.

It’s not rocket science, but it takes some practice and discipline. Most people don’t do it because they don’t know how or where to start. I take the guesswork out of that in my book, Proofread Like a Pro. That may sound like a shameless plug for my book. But, in all my years of writing (and in preparing to write my book), I’ve never seen anyone else actually set forth a SYSTEM for how to do it.

Don’t spend time writing a report, memo, or manuscript and simply hope that it’s OK. No one gets it perfect the first time around. And statistics show that communications riddled with typos and other errors lose credibility. So do the smart thing and work the system: my system—called 3/9/3—in my book.

The Top Reason to Proofread

Monday, July 25th, 2011

Some of my previous posts talked about why you should proof your work. There are many good reasons to do so, but the #1 reason is to avoid potential embarrassment and misunderstandings from errors, including those that spellcheck can’t catch. I’ve also talked about how to proofread.

Today an e-mail crossed my desk that underscored this #1 reason. I just had to share it with you:
“To help you out, we have put together a series of four videos that are choke full of usable content that can be deployed immediately.”

Really. I hadn’t thought about eating the videos, but you’re right—I’d probably choke trying.

Of course, the writer meant to say “chock.” But didn’t.

This isn’t an e-mail from a tiny startup company. It’s from a massive, well-respected, nationally known marketing stronghold of a company that’s sold over 20 million books touting their techniques.

 You’d think they’d hire proofreaders.

Maybe they did.

But they got sucker-punched by their copy. They knew what it was supposed to say, so they glossed right over it. They hit “send”—and, boom! Millions of people on their distribution list guffawed the gaff immediately. To avoid such embarrassing moments, read my post, Proofreading Power Punches. It only takes one misstep like this to submarine your credibility.

 Here’s another one:
“Your cooling skills are outstanding.”

If I were in the HVAC business and had just fixed your air conditioner, that might be true. But you’re eating my muffins.

That second sentence was from a dear friend, and obviously I knew what she meant. But you have to laugh at it. Literally hundreds of words in the English languages are only one letter different from each other, and a minor slip—even though the goof is a real word—can generate some really interesting reading. Here are just a few examples:

A coping machine (A good alternative to our department’s Xerox?)
Cath and carry (Not something I’d want to do if I had one)
Cornmeal transplant (No thanks)
Chef of surgery (I hope he can do more than toss salads)
A pier review (Are seagulls on the committee?)
Half-lift of 4 hours (Not good, especially if that’s an antidepressant)
Port tenderloin (Was the pig overfed?)

Your mind can go blank or black; you might titter about a dose, but you really need to titer it; and gravy is never gray in my book.

Bottom line: Avoid such bungles! Proofread your work!

Writing Full Circle (OR, How to Mop Up Sloppy Writing)

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

I edited and proofed a corporate newsletter yesterday. All the articles had already made it through one editor’s hands before they reached me. My job was to further vet the material for content, grammar and punctuation. Yesterday I saw something I’m seeing more and more of: sloppy writing. A sentence conveys a general idea, but some of its details are either mishmashed together or omitted, making the meaning unclear—or downright wrong.

One article said a program had an “enhanced screening procedure”—without explaining what was new or different about the procedure.

A discussion about policies and procedures for preventing workplace aggression said this:
“New procedures to support these policies include the creation of an aggression prevention team … and a contract to …”
A team is not a procedure; neither is a contract. A procedure is steps that explain how and when to call upon the team or use the contract. The team and the contract are measures.

The most egregious error was a human interest story about a little girl whose artificial trachea accidentally got dislodged. The story was a real heartstring tugger—with one problem. It said, “her trachea dislodged.” BIG difference between her real trachea and the artificial one. Without the word “artificial” in there, nothing else about the incident (how the device got stuck on a machine, how she stopped breathing, etc.) made any real sense—if the author had thought about it for a couple seconds.

These examples aren’t grammar errors—they’re bigger errors. Errors in content. Not being careful to say what you mean to say. Not making sure the content is both accurate and crystal clear. Content errors obscure meaning like dirt obscures a shiny floor.

How busy or distracted were the authors when they wrote those three stories? Or the editor who first looked at the content? I can’t say. My job was janitorial duty: “cleanup on pages 1 and 3.”

You can learn a lesson from these pitfalls. Avoiding them is simple. Just take a bit of extra time to read over your work and ask yourself:

  • “Did I say what I meant to say?”
  • “Did I include all the facts?”
  • “Did I get the facts straight?”
  • “Will even the lowest-level reader in the audience be able to understand what I wrote—without having to re-read it?”

When you think about it, that’s writing come full circle:

  • In the pre-writing phase, you ask yourself those big-picture questions to help you define your audience and what you need to say.
  • When you edit what you write, you drill down from big chunks of information to smaller chunks: moving around paragraphs, then finessing sentence structure and word choices, proofreading last.
  • But before you say your work is “finished,” loop back to the big-picture questions listed above. Doing so will save you the potential embarrassment of a mop-up job later on.

4 Reasons to Proofread your E-mails

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

I subscribe to a medical writing listserve, and yesterday a person new to the group posed what appeared to be an extremely basic question: what is the difference between an outline and an abstract? The essence of the first response was, “If you knew anything about medical writing, you should already know the answer to that.” Implication: how dare you call yourself a medical writer and try to compete with us professionals for work.

A firestorm of responses followed that one: some chastised the responder for rudeness, others backed that response, others offered actual answers to the question, still others questioned whether people like the poster should have equal status with “real” medical writers in this organization. (Ooh, entitlement.)


What happened?

The first person to respond didn’t take the time to really read the e-mail.

Otherwise, the responder would have noticed 1) the careful but stilted English usage and 2) the obviously Asian name of the poster. That should have been sufficient reason to discern that cultural issues were involved. There ARE differences in medical journals as well as meanings/uses of words like “outline” and “abstract” in other countries. 

If the first responder had engaged their brain for a minute before hitting “send,” they also would have realized that the person posing the question made no claim to be an established medical writer.

The ensuing [heated] discussion uncovered those facts, as well as the need to maintain professionalism and withhold judgment in responses.

Besides the need to engage one’s brain before typing anything, this scenario underscores four reasons why you should proofread your e-mails before sending them:

  1. Ask, “who is my audience?” What do they know about this subject? Maybe nothing. Craft your e-mail accordingly.
  2. Watch your tone as you write. E-mails can come across harsher than intended because recipients can’t discern word inflections. Be more sensitive than usual in what you write and how you write it.
  3. Proof your e-mail for punctuation and grammar. It’s disastrous to tout yourself as an authority on something and then ruin that image with silly errors.
  4. Finally, ask yourself if the e-mail does what you intend it to do: persuade, inform, request a response. If not, then rewrite it.

That may sound like a lot of effort for “just” an e-mail, but it takes only a minute—and it can keep you out of hot water.

Wise word choice in writing

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

You’ve seen it—some well-intended ad or company name that inadvertently sends the wrong message. You either scratch your head or writhe when you read it.

Examples: What do “Drain Surgeons” really work on? And who wants to hire a company called “Off-Duty Chimney Sweep”?

When shopping for clothes, most women are already sensitive enough about their figure and dress size without allusions to their farm-animal proportions at the Dress Barn.

The same applies to product descriptions and so much more. Just think about all the things that a “price reduced” sign in front of a for-sale house could mean.

Let’s compare the words “cheap” and “inexpensive” for a minute. Which would you rather buy and give as a gift: a cheap tea set or an inexpensive tea set? Probably the latter—because of what those words connote.

“Cheap” has many negative connotations: tawdry, shoddy manufacturing, questionable quality. On the other hand, “inexpensive” more likely conjures positive connotations, such as “good value for the money you spend.”

I cringe when I see “cheapest rates” (as in hotels) versus “best rates” or “best values.”

On the other hand, a word like “premier” can mean “outstanding,” “top-notch,” “first-choice,” “expert”—or “too expensive.”

Words can have positive or negative meanings to readers—despite what you intend for your words to convey.

An extra moment of thinking like a reader or a customer can make all the difference in how you present yourself or your company, products or services.

It’s all about people’s perceptions of what your words mean. Dictionaries define meaning and standard usage, otherwise known as the word’s denotation. What people think a word means or signifies is the word’s connotation. Huge difference.

How do you get your intended meaning across?

  • Know your target audience.
  • Remember that their past experiences, backgrounds and more affect their connotations of your words.
  • Steer readers to the right connotation by choosing your words wisely.

Words have power; make them work for you!

Proofreading Avoids Punctuation Pitfalls

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

A poignant article about children’s hospice centers appeared in The Baltimore Sun this week. The article did a masterful job explaining the problems (including insurance snafus) associated with pediatric hospice efforts. The thoughtful treatment of one family’s plight was also laudable. Then, on the second page of the article was this paragraph:
“The Murphys had finally uncovered Kayla’s condition; she was 3 years old. The bad news: There is no cure.”

If you read that casually—especially if you mentally insert a colon where the semicolon is—it sounds like the source of Kayla’s terminal condition was simply that she was 3 years old.

That sentence never should have made past the editor or proofreader without red-inking it.

The sentence suffers from both context and punctuation problems. The previous paragraph described the family’s cross-country efforts to find what was wrong with their child, priming the reader to hear about the diagnosis in the next paragraph (the one I’m calling out). The writer meant to say that the girl had lived 3 years before doctors diagnosed her. But that’s not how it comes across. 

An easy correction would be:
“WHEN the Murphys finally uncovered Kayla’s condition, she was 3 years old.” 

Another easy correction:
“After 3 years of searching, the Murphys finally uncovered Kayla’s condition.”

One blot on an otherwise great article—but what a blot. That blot damaged the writer’s credibility.

The widespread online chatter about this slip-up is proof positive that we need to be more diligent than ever in scrutinizing what we write after we write it. 

In the most technical sense, the sentence structure and punctuation are okay. But it’s a mess in terms of what it says versus what it intends to say.

So how do you catch errors like this, especially if you already know what the words should say? Adopt a system for proofreading. How do you do that? Buy and read my book, Proofread like a Pro. I’ve spent decades teaching writing classes and honing my real-world skills on virtually every type of print- and web-based content. Now I’ve distilled my experience into an easy-to-use system (called 3-9-3) that will make you “nails” on proofreading anything. Don’t risk having an important paper or presentation fall flat because of an embarrassing error. Everyone who’s e-mailed me after reading the book says it made their job easier and faster—and took the dread out of proofreading. I call that working smarter.

Clear Thinking for Good Writing

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Ever read a sentence and said to yourself, “Wha? Huh?”

It happens all the time.

I see this in too-long sentences, when a hurried writer strings together a bunch of thoughts but doesn’t take time to sort out what should go where. The result: a jumbled sentence. Sometimes it’s downright laughable.

I’m not here to give you a grammar lesson. Rules can only go so far. I forgot all of them in high school and had to re-teach myself everything when I started writing regularly in a previous job.

Rules have purpose. But they make good technicians—not necessarily good writers.

“After being inspired by an ER episode about living kidney donations, surgeons at XYZ Hospital transplanted one of Smith’s kidneys to a stranger.”
This sentence literally means the surgeons got stoked by a TV show to do a transplant. The writer meant to say that Mr. Smith saw the TV show and decided to become a donor.

The writer had an idea about a donor, a donee, the reason for the donation and where the transplant took place—then smooshed it all together in a long sentence. When you write a sentence like that and you know what it’s supposed to say, you can miss the fact that you missed the boat in your meaning.

“After Mr. Smith saw an ER episode about living kidney donations, he donated one of his kidneys to a stranger.”
(Talk about the surgeons and the hospital in another sentence.)

Here’s another one:
“He has put his body to the test for the past five years by running and biking on two consecutive days for Miles for Muscular Dystrophy.”
Wow. All of two days in the past five years.

“Confirmation statements will be mailed to the homes of all employees eligible for Web enrollment by the end of November.”
This sentence is incorrectly too restrictive—until you start it with “By the end of November.” (The sentence has other problems, too.)

What’s missing here?

THOUGHT. One cure for bad writing is good thinking.

While grammar rules have names for these problems and their fixes, THINKING about what you write can go further than remembering what dangling participles and misplaced modifiers are.

Sentences either “hang” or “huh?” when you don’t put modifiers in their rightful spots. If a reader has to backtrack to re-read your sentence, he’ll likely quit reading. Not good—especially if that reader is your boss, a client, a review board, etc.

Rule of thumb: modifiers go right next to what they modify. Keep your antennae tuned for this when you proofread your work. If you write a lengthy sentence and don’t explain something about its third word until you get to the last half of the sentence, then shuffle things around for clarity. By doing so, you may avoid a major OOPS.

If you’re not one for rules, then make common sense prevail. Good thinking can fix bad writing.

Banish Proofreading Nightmares

Friday, January 29th, 2010

Proofreading nightmares. Everyone has them.

You think your report or proposal is perfect. Then someone who’s never read it before finds an oh-so-embarrassing mistake. You lose face. Or an account. Or a promotion.

Why do we miss those mistakes?

The most fundamental reason is that we don’t know how or what to proof. Proofing gets short shrift in the writing process until someone finds overlooked errors.

Industry-specific terms may need special attention. In health care, “underserved” gets extra scrutiny to make sure it’s not spelled “undeserved.” (Imagine applying for funding with that boo-boo in your documentation.) Similarly, “public” is always checked to make sure it actually contains the “l.” But what does proofing really entail? Most people can’t say.

You could catch all your mistakes—if you knew how. But no one taught you. Did any English teacher, writing coach or business guru ever give you “how to proof” lessons? No.

My biggest proofing nightmare happened years ago when I wrote a company’s first user manual. Half a dozen sets of in-house eyes proofed every page I wrote and tested every instruction I listed. So much was at stake.

Before we did a full press run, we sent manuals to some of the company’s largest clients—with the caveat that they’d give us extensive feedback.

Compliments came in. “Highly useful.” “Wish I’d had this earlier.” Then, a call from a New Jersey company. The accounting director asked for me. As he put his entire department on speaker phone, he said, “Is this really what you think of us bean counters?”

I was confused. Then I saw it. On the first page of the accounting section, “assets” was missing the “t.” Wow. Where’s Wile E. Coyote with an Acme portable hole when you need one?

Six highly educated, vested people missed the same mistake because none of them—including yours truly—knew how to proof.

Since then, I’ve scoured the Internet and bookstores for proofreading guidance. Virtually nothing goes beyond “10 tips.” (Some of those tips are lame, anyway. You can’t read aloud if you’re three feet away from the person in the next cubicle or you have two days to proof a 200-page book.) That’s why I wrote Proofread like a Pro. I practice what I preach, and I promise it WILL improve your proofreading skills.

I spend most of my time writing for science and health care. But the system I developed works for all writing. As a bonus, the book gives document-specific tips for proofing 17 types of Web, print and multimedia communications. I’m excited to offer something that everyone can really USE—every day. Give it a try. And let me know what you think.