Archive for the ‘Proofreading’ 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.

Fact Checking versus Proofreading

Friday, August 26th, 2011

Several people asked me to explain the difference between fact checking versus proofreading and whether they are part of the same process. (Nope.)

First, what is fact checking? It is verification that statistics and other facts stated in the document actually are contained in the reference(s) cited for those items.

Why or when would you need to do fact checking? Any document going before any kind of review board should be fact checked. In the pharmaceutical world, all materials— whether they’re flyers, sales training materials or package inserts—go before a medical-legal department to ensure that the company can back up everything their literature says. On a smaller scale, continuing healthcare education materials undergo similar scrutiny. Other sensitive or highly visible documents in any industry warrant fact checking.

You’d be surprised at how many errors fact checking can uncover. I recently worked on a continuing education course that cited 80 references, and 11% of them contained errors—including citing the wrong journal name/issue date/page numbers. Sometimes statistics in the course didn’t appear in any reference cited. Two URLs were no longer valid. And two references were duplicates of others—but they were cited so differently that proofreading probably wouldn’t have caught the errors.

One can argue that the document’s author is responsible for the references they use. True, but no one is perfect. Occasionally I find that authors misrepresent statistical data presented in the reference—a sign that they’ve read only the journal’s abstract—or cherry-picked a statistic and interpreted it the way they wanted to. That’s like English students reading CliffsNotes of Shakespeare instead of his actual plays.

So how does proofreading mesh with fact checking? I can speak only for myself, but I spot-check references as part of my proofreading services. Which references do I choose to check? Key ones—like those that help “build a case” for supporting a certain opinion, procedure or treatment. Also, anything that gives me an uneasy feeling when I read it in context. (After a while, you develop a sixth sense for such errors.) 

What if you’re “just” writing a report for your department chair or a vice president? Does fact checking matter? Absolutely. Expect to get grilled on your report. If you don’t know what’s in the background material you used in writing your document, you could become an exec’s lunchtime fodder.

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!

4 Reasons to Insist on Proofreading Final Changes

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Typical scenario: client asks your help in editing a manuscript or report. Client likes your edits and asks you to proof the final copy before submission. Client runs behind schedule. Client submits document without your proofing expertise. What could go wrong? Plenty.

“Plenty” happened to me twice last month.

In the first instance, language issues were involved. The main author was a non-native speaker of English.

While language hiccups would make a journal editor think twice about sending a manuscript to peer review, the second instance had even more dramatic implications.

The second manuscript hit a snag when a drug manufacturer published unfavorable interim results of a clinical trial after I had finished working on another client’s manuscript. We aborted the submission process to wait for word on whether the company would continue the trial. When the drug company said it likely would suspend all trials on this drug, it was a big blow to my client—who had invested years of time in the drug’s late-stage testing.

I asked my client if I should amend the manuscript or if he would prefer to. He e-mailed me a paragraph to insert—and it raised red flags all over the place for me.

That brings me to the four reasons why you should insist on proofing final documents, even if the client’s last round of changes is “minor:”

  • The tone may be inconsistent with the rest of the document.
    That’s what happened with my client who got the bad news. His tone reflected his disappointment. But the tone needed to stay objective, underscoring the merits of what came before, despite the drug’s uncertain future.
  • The language may be inconsistent with the rest of the document (e.g., native vs. non-native English).
  • The changes can contain grammar, punctuation, and spelling errorsespecially if they were written in haste (which often happens in the 11th hour).
  • If the submission is to a journal, some of the changes may contradict submission requirements. Most authors ignore the requirements set forth in journals’ style guides. They leave those details to people like me. 

So, tread lightly but give objective reasons why you should cast your eyes one more time on something your client deems “finished.” They’ll thank you for it after the fact!

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.

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.

Basketball Tips for Writing

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

I just finished work on some national training materials for U19 basketball coaches, and a statistic struck me: it takes 10,000 hours and approximately 10 years to master basketball skills.

Most of us don’t aspire to become the next LeBron James of writing, but the takeaway is that any skill development (including writing) requires intentionality, training, repetition, study and time.

Intentionality: Every coach has a season plan, and every practice plan intentionally builds skills. So don’t just write the same way you always have and expect to get better. Pick a couple things to work on for the next three to six months (e.g., punctuation, writing more concisely). Consult reliable sources for how-to strategies. Then do it. Assess yourself periodically; then add another writing skill to practice.

Training: Flawless layups don’t happen by simply shooting hoops every day. That execution is a result of skills training, as well as endurance, resistance and interval training. Similarly, mastering one aspect of writing won’t make you a better writer overall. So get the basic tools you need to train yourself:

  • Buy or subscribe to a good dictionary and thesaurus.
  • Find a good handbook for writing, grammar and punctuation, like the latest edition of the Gregg Reference Manual.
    (It looks huge, but it’s easy to use.)
  • Participate in select intensive “training camps.”
    Whether it’s a two-day course on grant writing, an online course on writing basics, or a book on proofreading, get what you need for the writing you do the most often.

Study the game. Why does some writing seem to flow, while other writing is harder to read? Why does some practically sparkle with clarity? Read sources of good writing. Deconstruct them. Find out what makes them good; then ask yourself how you can apply that to your writing.

Repetition: Nothing replaces practice, practice, practice.

Time: Today’s immediate-gratification society considers “time” a dirty word (corollary: “commitment”). But you already spend more time writing than you think—your e-mails alone can easily add up to two hours a day. Do you write reports for your professors or your boss? Put your writing time to good use by becoming intentional about improving your skills. (And, if you care to do the math, writing 4 hours/day, 6 days/week, 51 weeks/year will get you to 10,000 hours in about eight years.)

You may not reach the “elite athlete” equivalent of writing, but you can become a better writer than you are today. Just like basketball, years of ignoring the basics or practicing poor mechanics won’t help you master any skills. On the other hand, think of what even one year of intentional “training” could do for you!

Proofreading Power Punches

Friday, June 11th, 2010

Why is proofreading so tough to do? After all, by the time we get to it, we’ve finished the more technically challenging tasks of fact finding, writing and editing. Right? (Please say yes.)

Still, proofreading sucker punches us. We don’t even see it coming.


Because we’re not sure how to proofread, we “duck and dodge.” We hope we get it mostly right; and, if we miss something, we pray it doesn’t hurt too much when it hits us.


To proofread well, learn how to fight its two big sucker punches. Winning against both requires mastering certain mindsets.


First, master the block. Block your mind from recognizing what the writing is supposed to say. Whether you proof your work or someone else’s, you almost always know something about the topic, its background or the reason for writing about it. That knowledge is dangerous—because adult minds “fill in the blanks” with what should be there—even when it isn’t. Example:

To encourage suggestions from all staff, executive leadership developed an electronic suggestion box, “which as produced outstanding results,” Smith says.


Did you catch the error?


If not, you’re in good company.


To block this sucker punch, clear your mind and think, “I don’t know a thing about this material. I’ve never seen it before, and I can’t assume anything about it is right.” (Read that again: don’t assume anything.)


Ways to go on the offensive with this block:

·       Think like a fifth grader.

·       Play devil’s advocate.

·       Pretend you’re someone else (e.g., someone with an opposing point of view or someone from a different background, like a housekeeper reading HR material).


Second, master the counterpunch. Your mind may say, “I have to proof this whole thing!” Baloney. (Eventually you will—but not all at once.) Your counterpunch is a plan: Tackle the job in bite-sized pieces.


You can’t catch every kind of proofreading error in one pass; there’s simply too much to look for. If you try to find every grammar error at the same time you look for punctuation and spelling errors (not to mention awkward wording), you will miss things. I promise.


Say to yourself, “OK, now I’m going to look only for grammar errors.” That means misused words, wrong verb tenses, pronoun-antecedent problems, and so on. Forget the punctuation for now. When you focus on eliminating one type of error at a time, you actually work faster—and the total time you spend is less than if you’d tried to do it all at once.


Power punch your way through proofreading by mastering those two mindsets. The block and counterpunch beat sucker punches every time.

Dictionary versus Style Guide, part 2

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Several people asked for more information about online dictionaries and style guides, so I’m dedicating this post to answering your questions.

Although flipping through pages of a book can be faster than searching online, the portability of accessing online dictionaries and style guides from any Web-enabled device can’t be beat. In addition, online versions are updated in real time; updates to printed versions vary widely (by years). The real-time feature may be most critical to journalists, as terminology (e.g., ethnic, political, global terms) changes constantly. My previous post noted that real-time updates are important to medical writers as well. Besides saving trees, the real-time aspect of online dictionaries and style guides are the biggest reason why I purchase those subscriptions.

Merriam-Webster offers many online products, including:

  • their unabridged dictionary (my constant writing companion)
  • a thesaurus
  • a medical dictionary
  • a visual dictionary (perfect for seeing all the parts of something, drawn and labeled in great detail)
  • Encyclopedia Britannica

If you compare the cost of an annual online subscription versus buying the print version every five years or so, it’s a wash. Merriam-Webster’s latest unabridged print dictionary retails for $129; my annual online subscription is $29.95. You also can get a monthly subscription for $4.95. (Prices were accurate as of this posting date.)

My subscription to their unabridged dictionary comes with a bonus: an electronic newsletter full of interesting, useful information. (A newsletter about words might sound boring, but the opposite is true!)

Merriam-Webster also offers freebies: an open dictionary, word games and more—all accessible from their main site. (Note: If writing is a large part of your daily work, the open dictionary may not meet your needs.)

Style guides are another issue. Many, but not all, style guides have online counterparts. And, style guides vary according to the type of writing you do. Examples: college students use APA style; journalists use AP style; medical writers use AMA style. Government writing, legal writing, scientific/technical writing [etc.] all follow their own nationally recognized style guides. For a full discussion of how, why and when to use style guides, check out my book, Proofread like a Pro.

Got more questions? Post them, and I’ll consider them for future blogs!

Batting Cleanup in Medical Writing

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

This Sunday, baseball will get into swing with its first official game of the season—so it’s an appropriate time to talk about batting cleanup.

The fourth batter in the lineup is the cleanup batter, strategically positioned there because he or she is one of the best, most powerful hitters on the team. Coaches rely on the cleanup batter to bring base runners home.

Medical writers do the same thing when called to help with the final stages of manuscripts and grant proposals.

As a matter of fact, that’s what I did all last month: bat cleanup.

I’m happy to do so. It’s a compliment. It means that MDs and PhDs have the confidence in me to “bring their projects home.” Successful completion of a journal or grant submission is crucial. With publishing and funding at stake in those camps, it’s important to utilize the best medical writer you know to ensure your draft is clear, concise, and complete—well-written, error-free, with a readily understandable message.

Let’s face it: review committees read scores of manuscripts and grant proposals every day. If a submission doesn’t “speak” to a committee, even good research or a well-intentioned grant proposal may not get the green light it deserves. And, while review committees strive to be objective, everyone appreciates reading well-written documents.

Batting cleanup takes skill, attention to detail and a critical eye. Of course, I look for grammar and punctuation snafus, errors and omissions. But I also read for organization, content and “the story.” Many times, researchers are so intent on including all the “science” of what they’re doing that the reason why they’re doing it gets lost in the details. We need to tell WHY it’s important to chase this elusive protein. What is its translational significance? Will it ultimately help develop novel cancer treatments or give people with age-related macular degeneration a chance to see again?

Of course, it’s critical to make sure you include all your facts. But it’s equally important (and helpful) to hand the project off to someone with fresh eyes to bat cleanup for you. And it really helps if that person’s nickname is “slugger.”

(Yep, that was my nickname when I played ball in high school and college.)