Professional writing, grammar & proofreading 1.0

Professional WritingThe schools may be closed here for the summer holidays but this post will be your dose of double English 😉 so sit up straight, dust down your dictionary, switch of you mobile phone and pay attention in class.

The internet still takes a written form for the most part and as many of us ‘publish’ content for the web we are in effect professional writers with a duty to make sure our work meets an acceptable level as far as spelling and punctuation.

With text shorthand on phones & spell checkers prevalent in today’s society you have to fear the worst for the next generation, parents can usually calculate sums in their head better than their children due to our reliance on calculators and so this cycle may carry on and evolve as we rely on machines instead of knowledge for spelling and punctuation.

With this in mind I asked Charlie of Perfectly Write whether she would be so kind as to answer a few questions I had on basic grammar, spelling and proofreading.

charlie1.jpgQ. On a personal note I’m never sure whether to use a colon (:) or semi-colon (;). Can you advise us as to their correct usage?

This is a tricky one, and there are a good number of rules governing this. For full details, I’d recommend checking out the Oxford Style Guide and/or Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation.

In simple terms, a colon (:) is an introducer. It points forward and introduces:

  • a list (as above)

  • an extended quotation or direct speech. Mr Jones says: “I’m delighted by this promotion. . .”

  • an explanation or amplification of the preceding part of the sentence. There was only one thing to do: run.

The last use is the one most people struggle with. Basically, a colon is a rather dramatic punctuation mark: it makes the reader pause and theatrically announces something to come which will add new information to the part of the sentence before the colon. Usually, the part of the sentence before the colon is a complete sentence in itself, and the colon could be replaced with words like namely, that is, for example, for instance, because and therefore.

The semi-colon (;) is a little like a comma but with special powers. It has two main jobs:

  • It can join two separate sentences that are closely related. It was his first job as a salesman; before this, he had been a teacher.

  • It can help divide up long and complicated lists that may otherwise be confusing. I ordered a prawn cocktail, not with salad; a steak, chips and peas; an ice cream sundae without nuts; and a pitcher of beer.

Q. Do you think spellcheckers are a help or a hindrance to online writers who may never learn without such crutches?

They can be both. I encourage my clients to use spellcheckers to help them spot errors in their writing, but the operative word here is ‘help’. Spellcheckers (and grammar checkers) can help with proofreading, but not proofread for you. It’s important to understand their limitations and weaknesses.

I use my spellchecker daily as I work, and it certainly helps me quickly track down some errors as I proofread, edit and write. However, spellcheckers ignore many misspelled words, incorrect words, Americanisms and utter nonsense, which makes relying on them foolish. For example, my spellchecker has no problem with the following: Its knot a grate idée to relay on a spell cheque too find all you’re mistake.

No spellchecker replaces the need for thorough proofreading (several times). Online writers should feel free to use their spellchecker as the first stage of proofreading, but follow it up with slow, careful proofreading.

For more details on spellcheckers, spelling and proofreading, you can check out the tips and articles on my website (www.perfectlywrite.co.uk) and my blog (www.perfectly-write-words.blogspot.com).

Q. You are obviously very passionate about writing and the English language; can you tell us your pet peeve?

That would be picking up a new bestselling book or checking out a leading company’s website and finding poor writing that’s full of errors.

I’m never judgemental of my clients for their mistakes, especially as I firmly believe many, many people have been let down by poor education in this area. I certainly didn’t bounce out of school able to punctuate properly, or understand the basics of good writing, and it was only with further training and experience that my skills and knowledge grew.

However, I don’t think there’s any excuse for publishers selling books that haven’t been proofread (or copy-edited) properly, or huge brands sending out marketing material complete with typos, inconsistencies and weak writing style. Yet this sloppiness is surprisingly prevalent.

These organisations have the money to hire skilled professionals to ensure spot-on text that’s free from mistakes. They should have the business acumen to know that high standards are essential, and that consumers will not be impressed by any company that does not take pride in their work and pay attention to detail. 

One or two mistakes is understandable (though not ideal), but anything more is the organisation effectively saying, ‘I can’t be bothered to take the time and ask a professional to check this.’ That is my pet peeve.

Q. Proofreading your own work can often be quite difficult and it is easy to miss the same errors again and again. Do you have any tips?

There are several tips I offer clients for effective proofreading, based on my training and experience.

  • Be prepared. You’ll need to be able to focus, so ensure you aren’t too tired and have quiet surroundings. Get the material ready to ensure ease of proofreading: ideally printed out rather than on screen, and double spaced in an easy-to-read font (I recommend Times New Roman sized at 14). Have a dictionary at hand and some paper to make notes on.

  • Be organised and systematic. The easiest way to spot every tiny mistake in a document is to create a tick chart and check each point systematically. For example, you may want to check page numbers, headings, indents, tables, figures and the style of certain words. Break the proofreading down and go through the text a few times, looking for different things on each reading. I usually read once for sense, then deal with the nitty gritty, then give it a final read to catch anything that may have slipped through the net.

  • Be consistent. When you first come across a word or term that rings alarm bells, look it up. Once you’ve found the correct style and spelling, ensure you apply it throughout the document. So if I was writing an article on proofreading, I would style it as one word throughout, and not slip into proof-reading or proof reading on page three. This is easily done in Word using the ‘find and replace’ function.

  • Be ready to ask for help. If you’ve written or worked on a document yourself, chances are you’re so familiar with the material your eyes have developed blind spots in places: your mind reads what it thinks is there, rather than what is actually written. This is why, for important text, it’s always a good idea to ask someone outside the project to proofread it as well – a friend, a colleague or a professional.

Q. What would be the top grammatical or punctuation errors that most amateur writers tend to make?

Here are the most common mistakes I come across each day as I edit and proofread:

  • Overuse of capitals: Some writers have a penchant for using Capital Letters quite RandomLy where they just aren’t needed.

  • Comma splices: This is when a writer joins two sentences together with a comma – not grammatically correct but increasingly common.

  • Misplaced apostrophes: Many writers get a little confused over when and where to use apostrophes. They often leave them out or stick them willy nilly.

  • Spellchecked nonsense: Just because there is no red underlining on your screen in Word, doesn’t mean for a moment the text is accurate.

  • Word confusion: There are a host of words in the English language that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings, such as there/their/they’re. Then there are words that look a little similar and get muddled, like lose and loose.

  • Inconsistency: It’s a big issue in much of the writing I work on: on page one the writer may discuss year 6 pupils, then on page two shift to Year Six students.

But it’s not just amateur writers who make these mistakes; I come across them time and time again, even when proofreading the work of professional, published writers. That’s exactly why proofreaders like me exist: it frees writers up to write, knowing that a professional will ensure that it’s ‘perfectly write’.

Q. What do you advise on modern words that seem to evolve like e-mail/email and web site/website? Is there a right or wrong way or does consistency matter more? Sometimes hyphens seem to appear and disappear.

It’s true that new words tend to evolve in different styles before settling down. In some cases there is right style that all dictionaries agree on, and anything else is incorrect. But often dictionaries will disagree, and in this case I always advise choosing one style and sticking to it religiously.

This becomes much easier when you settle on one dictionary as your definitive oracle for the English language. I used the Oxford Dictionary and guides, and by choosing one style (the Oxford style) my writing is consistent.

For example, Chambers Dictionary hyphenates co-operate, while Oxford does not. So it’s not much good going with Chambers’ style for co-operate, but then Oxford’s for coordinate, as they are not consistent and will stand out to a reader.

My motto is: If in doubt, be consistent.

______________________

If your interested in Charlie’s services then check out Perfectly Write, my grammar may not always the best so I did find this an excellent opportunity to ask some questions and learn something new, I may even bookmark this post myself 🙂

About Scott Jones

Scott hails from the north east of Scotland and started earning online at the end of 2000 building websites for local businesses during which time he won an award from Lord Alan Sugar for Excellence in Enterprise. After having quite a bit of success with domaining Scott mainly runs educational evergreen websites which generate over 3 million visitors per month but is always on the lookout for a fresh thinking out of the box way to turn a buck. Follow on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Hi Scott,
    Hi Charlie,

    “Proofreading your own work can often be quite difficult and it is easy to miss the same errors again and again. Do you have any tips?”

    switch __of__ you mobile phone

    Q.e.d., aside from that thanks for the interesting article/ interview. Even more interesting for me as a non-native speaker.

    Frank

    • That was the first thing i spotted too, was it a deliberate mistake Scott? 😉

      • The smart thing would be to say yes, but alas no! I did proofread it and everything was fine until at the last minute this morning I quickly edited that 3rd paragraph and managed to botch it so well spotted.

        • That just goes to show that one important rule is missing above: Never do an edit in haste and if you absolutely have to edit triple-check. 🙂

          I often found that my worst mistakes happen due to hasty edits 😉

          Frank

        • I think that is often the one I am guilty of, I’ll prepare a post and then leave it and then later on think of a better way of wording a phrase or want a small change and edit in in WordPress where it is difficult to see the overall text and make last minute errors.

  2. Wow thats a long post and very useful. At the moment I have a spell checker that checks the spelling of words I type and suggest alternatives for the correct spelling.

    Personally I wouldn’t go paying somebody to check my spelling/grammer because these are basic things I’ve learnt at school.

    Ironically you used the wrong “of” in “switch of you mobile phone” and also a wrong word, you should’ve been your 😉

  3. Long post, and really nice explanation of the difference between ; and :

  4. Nice article 🙂 English had to be my least favorite subject back at school, after 15 years of not writing anything my writing skills had been reduced to near nothing.

    And then came the internet, for myself all this new technology has done nothing but good my spelling has improved considerably from the use of spellcheck mainly cause i just get tired of correcting the same words all the time & eventualy just learn them.

    • Good point, I used to worry years ago that I didn’t read much, I guess the internet has helped there for me as I was never one to read a book but I do know there are benefits to be had by reading regularly.

  5. I always consider my English to be pretty poor, but I think thats mostly due to comparing myself to the people I went to school with and I went to a grammar school and wasn’t exactly a model student 🙂
    But I’m pretty good with proof reading my blog posts, although I have a couple of paid bloggers that are always making spelling mistakes, so I end proof reading theirs aswell, I think they are getting better with my constant bugging about it though!

  6. I really like the writers from webmasterlabor. Im just a small time publisher and I find their prices just too high but really nice quality articles..

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