During the famous SALT talks in 1972, Henry Kissinger heard Leonid Brezhnev recount a chilling story about a condemned man and the tsar of Russia. The tsar had written, rather cryptically: “Execution impossible pardon.”
Without punctuation, it was impossible to tell whether the tsar meant “Execution impossible, pardon” or “Execution, impossible pardon.” The man’s fate hinged on the placement of a comma.
Brezhnev said the tsar left it to the lawyers to decide where the comma should go. “What happened to the condemned man?” Kissinger asked, intrigued.
That seemingly trivial function, punctuation, can mean life or death.
Melodramatic, yes, but by getting things right, you do avoid the potential misunderstandings, humiliations and miscommunications that come with making a public blunder. Can we put a price on that?
With business racing at breakneck pace, proofreading may seem like a quaint relic that’s easily dispensed with, but I’d argue that renders it even more crucial to have “final eyes” on our work. In the rush to meet deadlines, it’s this step that seems to be sacrificed, sometimes with damaging, amusing or embarrassing results.
A more lighthearted example from a magazine cover:
Rachael Ray- finds inspiration in cooking
and her dog.
Okay, so that cover was Photoshopped, but the point remains: We all need some form of copydesk. As a rookie reporter, I imagined the copydesk neurotically nitpicking over my stories like hens pecking at corn kernels. Now I realize that those eagle-eyed editors saved my bacon from stupidity, carelessness, maybe even libel.
Victims of shrinking budgets, proofreaders and copy editors are a vanishing species of unseen and unsung heroes. I bemoan their scarcity upon finding blunders in something I’m reading, or when there’s a gaping hole—an important piece of information left out, such as where was the crime committed, what time does the show start, or how long is the sale going to last.
Before you click “publish” or hand your document to the printer, show it to someone who
- Possesses keen English skills
- Is unfamiliar with its content
The first is self-evident, the second I’ll explain. I can’t tell you how many times a document has gone out from offices where I’ve worked that had passed through many hands, but nobody saw the obvious error. Why? We’re too close to it. Only an outsider—somebody looking at it with fresh eyes–could see the problem. A name is misspelled, a word is written twice, a “not” is missing, or a key piece of information is omitted. Typically it’s the operative word that’s forgotten or misspelled.
After more than 20 years as a professional writer, little that I write for publication goes to a client without another person I trust proofing it. What about spell check and grammar check? Good luck. That’s fine for the first pass, but no computer program caught the following items taken from actual headlines and ads, courtesy of Huffington Post:
- your child’s leaning problems
- honey mustard chicken diapers
- crap yourself in a blanket
Those were the tamest ones. The others I couldn’t print here.
Finalize your documents with ‘final eyes.’
So what was Brezhnev’s response to Kissinger? The wily General Secretary of the Communist Party, characteristically, punted. “My answer will depend on how our talks go.”
Join the discussion 28 Comments
What a great reminder for the essential aspect of proofreading!
I like how you mention having another set of eyes look at your work. This is something I’ve always known to do, but never do 🙁
I think it’s because that excited factor is pushing you to just hit publish.
But something I have been doing is recording myself as I read it out loud. That seems to help me catch those little mess ups.
Thanks for sharing this wonderful advice!
When it comes to blogging, I’m not sure any of us have the time and “other person” to proofread to that extent. But when it comes to printed materiel or something like a company website that’s going to reflect on a brand then I always pass it off to someone else. Funny how blogging gets demoted 🙂 But ultimately it’s a lot more casual and people are more forgiving of small mistakes.
You know what works for me if there isn’t another pair of eyes around? Printing out the post on paper – it’s like seeing it for the first time. It’s frightening how many unnecessary words and missing commas I can find that way.
Good idea! I usually have the opposite problem – too many commas. either way, a printout is almost like seeing it for the first time. It’s a whole new filter!
Thank goodness I’m not a “business” with a huge reputation like Nike or Coke… My little old blog over here only has me. Now I was an executive assistant for over 30 years so although I’ve still been known to make some mistakes, they aren’t huge.
The only thing I did do wrong one time was use a word that in another country meant something really really nasty. Heck, I live in the good old USA so it certainly didn’t have that meaning here. But I do get quite a number of foreigners to my blog so after several complaints I just changed the word. So far that’s been my biggest boo boo. Thank goodness.
Now my curiosity is killing me. One of these days you will have to tell me what that word was! I think people are more forgiving of blogs because they’re more like a casual conversation. But still it’s important to sound professional. I proofread my posts half a dozen times and sometimes still miss typos.
After writing a blog post, I will read it aloud to my hubz, & I’m always amazed by how many errors I spot this way. Then he reads through it again as he posts it, and usually catches one or two goofs. And of course, I always spot at least one after it’s already been published. Drives me nuts!
Want to laugh… my dad subscribes to my blog. And he reads every one and inevitably if there is a typo I get THE EMAIL. At least I know the typos won’t live long 🙂
How those typos, errors and other punctuation lacking! I have a friend who has written a few books who said that no matter how many times she’d review her book she would find something she missed the previous time. Scary, isn’t it!
As a writer myself, I learned how not to trust myself and edit appropriately. Unfortunately, I do not have a trusted editor in my immediate entourage, so that’s an only-me-job as far as I am concerned.
Thank you for mentioning those hilarious errors and typos here. That was a lot of fun 🙂
At least we can correct our blog posts pretty easily but a book is not so easy to correct! Especially since people already have a copy with typos. If I was going to publish something like that I’d have about 20 people proofread it! Otherwise, it’s usually just little ol’ me.
Thank goodness I am not under the pressure to write books! My blog is scary enough to go over punctuation and spelling. However, I am one of the lucky ones that is married to a man who did professional writing, and ghost writing. Before I press that “submit” button I have an extra pair of peepers to go over it.
If I didn’t have him, I would have to hire someone to do some editing.
I write from my heart and sometimes ramble. If I had to do all of it myself, it would take too much time.
I loved the way you showed us the funny typos and errors. I had to read them twice before I “got it” ha ha that’s how bad I am!
Donna, I did the same thing – I had to read through to catch the mistakes. It’s funny how your brain just fills in the blanks sometimes!
This is hilarious. Love it. I wish I had someone to read through my posts before publishing them, although I don’t think I had such funny mistakes (at least I don’t know about them yet). Great tips, by the way!
It reminds me of a book called “Eats, shoots and leaves” about an article that was written about panda bears. But the comma in the wrong place implied it was shooting – as opposed to eating shoots (bamboo). Funny!
well, this is a just a comma ! In German, you also have capital letters. There’s a classic example which also deals with the Soviet Union, interestingly enough.
It goes:”Er hat in Moskau liebe Genossen.” vs. “Er hat in Moskau Liebe genossen.” See the difference ?
The first sentence means:”He has dear companions in Moscow.”
The second one means:”He has enjoyed love in Moscow.”
The difference is just a capital L, right ?
So I couldn’t agree more with you that proofreading is important…by the way, in case of lack of someone with keen English skills: There’s a great plugin who helps me a lot and it’s called “After the deadline”.
Thanks for sharing your insights.
Wow, that’s amazing! For a capital letter to change to meaning of something so completely! Those little nuances must be so hard to pick up even if you speak another language. I think I’ll stick to English 🙂
Good idea because my eyes I swear get tired after reading it over and over again. I send it through Grammarly and other programs and thankfully it has helped tremendously. There are so many would-be writers out there, myself included and no one is perfect.
One thing I don’t do is call people out in blog comments about something wrong with a post or embarrass them. I hate when people do that because you never know how that person will react. Proof reading is just plain smart marketing if you want to be taken seriously, but in your own way that is. Good post Linda!
I love when someone lets me know about an error, they usually send me a DM on Twitter. Anytime, you can do it!
A DM is not a bad idea. Telling them in comments is a little tough because it’s very public and could definitely be embarrassing. That’s what I have my dad for. He gets my emails, reads the post then sends me back and email correcting my typos 🙂
No matter how many times I read something I always miss something! Your brain just tunes out after a while. Someone asked me to correct a typo recently and I read it about 4 times and didn’t see anything wrong with it. Finally I noticed there was a word repeated. But my brain sort of edited it out I guess!
Oh Yes – Once I had a headline that was a misprint for weeks until I went to add it to the buffer and I caught it – wondered how many saw it and didn’t comment on it as they left comments on the post 🙂 I find if I view in on my smart phone I can catch quite a few. When I have extra long writings for a monthly publication I have my sister proofread it. She is so good at it. Always finds something. I have too many blogs and stuff now for her to proof. I’d have to put her on a payroll.
Someone suggested printing something out to proofread. Sounds like a similar idea to reading in on your phone. It’s just a change of venue that gets you to look at it a bit differently. I think we all have the same problem when it comes to typos, Lisa! I especially hate when I catch one MUCH later and wonder how many people read it and thought I was dumb.
Oh such good advice. I am the worst proof reader and I do not see my own typos. I can read and re-read and still miss them. My husband has to read my blog posts for me and if he is not around there is bound to be one slip through.
My excuse is I read fast and skim read so I do not see them, but it is a lame excuse. Although I think we are tuned to what we are saying and see it as we meant it.
I love your example of Rachel Ray cooking her family and dog 🙂
Thanks for the good advice.
I completely understand, Sue. I know what I want to say so my brain invents the words that SHOULD be there! Sometimes it’s not only just proofreading. Sometimes I leave out whole ideas because I know what I’m talking about. Too bad I just forgot to say it!
Oh, your example about Rachael Ray cooking her dog and family made me laugh! You are so right though about the importance of punctuation, and as Oliver commented, capital letters also when it comes to the German language.
I don’t have anyone to read through my posts before I publish them, but I do always leave them over night for the very reason, that, with fresh eyes the following day, I have a better chance of spotting any errors. On the odd occasion where I have been in too much of a hurry to hit that ‘publish’ button, you can bet your life I made some error. Luckily nothing too dramatic yet though 🙂
Thanks for the reminder.
You and me both, Louise! I always try to write at least a day ahead of time because the next day I’ll find a typo guaranteed. Doesn’t matter how many times I’ve read something! Fortunately I’ve never said anything about Russian lovers 🙂
Quite obvious but very important tip indeed. Proofreading is must. Being a freelancer writer and having a team of writers I need to do that quite often but I truly hate it. You know what proofereading your own post is fine but doing it for other’s posts is horrible.
anyways nice post Linda. Glad to be here.
Obvious yet so overlooked! I find so many typos in so many places… even on print ads that come to me in the mail that you’d think someone would look at before spending money. Not the most fun thing to proofread, but definitely one of the most important!