Just about everyone publishes these days, whether in short form, as tweets or Facebook posts, or in longer blogs. Many of these informal or personal forms of communication are straight from the heart, which is what makes them so compelling and enjoyable. But when you are publishing for business purposes a bit more polish may be required to demonstrate professionalism.
If you work for an organisation of any size, and whether or not it’s in your job description, you may find yourself writing in a professional capacity. Blogs, reports, meeting minutes, advertising materials, invoices, emails, newsletters for customers or employees, technical documentation – all of these will need to be clear and accurate, and in line with the company’s branding and values. It sounds so simple, but when you get down to it, getting it all right can seem quite a daunting task.
Using the benefit of my experience from working within large organisations, proofreading for other companies, and issues I’ve seen in published documentation, I have compiled some pointers to help you edit and proofread your own work:
Warning: you may need to be ruthless!
Take a detached look at what you have drafted. Is it clear why the document has been written and is it conveying the relevant information?
Does it flow? Don’t be afraid to restructure. There should be an introduction of some sort, then the information or actions, then a summary.
Do the most important calls to action stand out or are they lost in beautifully written but unnecessary padding? Can detailed instructions be moved to an appendix and/or written as a bullet list so as not to overload the reader? This can be useful if you are instructing staff about a new process they will need to follow.
Is it at the right level for your audience? Put yourself in their shoes and ask, ‘Is the language, including jargon, going to be understood?’
A financial report to the board of directors may not require certain acronyms being expanded, but a statement of the company’s position aimed at the general workforce, from senior engineers to apprentices, may require a bit more explanation. As a newly-employed graduate, I sat through ‘all-employee financial briefings’ led by account-leads who failed to understand that the development team (i.e. coding monkeys) didn’t really understand the difference between GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Practice) and non-GAAP profit projections, or why we should care about them.
Keep the company mission statement and core values to hand: you want to ensure consistency with this message. Does the confidentiality clause sound like a gagging order in a company that prides itself on clarity and integrity?
When you are happy with the overall structure, you want to give it your professional polish. Proofreading is more than just correcting your spelling and grammar, but that is a good starting point.
Spelling and Grammar
If your company has a style guide, it will tell you the basics, such as whether to use US or UK spellings, -ise or -ize endings, how headings should be capitalised and what bullet point or numbering formats to use.
In the absence of information in the style guide, consistency is the key and go for majority usage (to reduce your rework).
If you are writing in MS Word, you may well find help from its spelling and grammar functionality. Use these blue and red wiggly lines as a guide, but they are not fool-proof. Technical terminology and your company’s jargon may never satisfy the standard rules but are perfectly acceptable in your context. MS Word won’t always give clues when you have used the wrong word. Words can be easily mis-typed: the word ‘form’ is a great word, correctly spelled and everything, but not good if you meant to write ‘from’. Other common sausage-finger mistakes: it, is, in, if; of, off, for; on, no, not; through, though, thought.
In particular, names need to be spelled correctly, as getting this wrong could be seen as disrespectful to a customer, colleague or boss. If you are unsure of the correct spelling, check. Some commonly mixed-up names are: Thompson and Thomson; Johnson and Johnston; Shepherd, Sheppard and Shephard; Foster and Forster.
For many elements within a document, there is no definitive right or wrong, but consistency is important to avoid jarring the reader and denting their confidence, even if only subconsciously.
Is jargon explained where necessary and are acronyms expanded at first use? You may have a company or department glossary that you can include or refer to, or you may want to create one. It’s worth expanding an acronym even when you think it’s common parlance within your team, as the same acronyms may have different meanings and it’s better to include a few extra words than risk ambiguity.
There may be ‘protected language’ within your organisation, which may not have the same meaning as in plain English. You may choose to always capitalise words when used in a phrase, e.g. Artificial Intelligence. Similarly, you may always hyphenate one-off and multi-use. You may have a DevOps department, with a capital letter part way through the word.
If you are collating information from several contributors, are they consistent? For example, if pen portraits of employees are being published in a newsletter, are they all in the first person or third person? Is the tense consistent throughout? You don’t want the reader to be confused by a mix of past, present and future tenses describing one activity.
Is the active or passive voice the preferred option? Active voice: I did that. Passive voice: it was done.
Formatting covers the visual aspects of the document: font styles and sizes; how headings are displayed; how the text is justified (left, right or blocked); spacing between lines and paragraphs, and around headings; whether or not first lines of paragraphs are indented; how bullet and numbered lists are set out.
MS Word can help you with this if you use the styles available, and again consistency is key. Don’t try to use too many fonts – it may look pretty to one person, but untidy to another.
Date formats should be consistent for the geography in which you are publishing – be aware of the difference between US and UK formats! Do we mean 01/03/2018 or 03/01/2018? Sometimes it’s only clear when we get beyond the 12th of a month! Furthermore, if the structure 14/05/2018 and 22/08/2019 are used then we shouldn’t suddenly jump to 3rd October 2021. If you are going to add the day of the week, make sure it’s correct! Monday 14/05/2018 is fine, but Monday 14/05/2019 won’t be. This type of issue is common when templates are copied through month on month or year on year, so always worth a check. You want to avoid publishing your one-day only offer to your customers with an ambiguity that could double your liability!
Check that everything that should be included is there! Is every table, graph, image, diagram, flowchart that is mentioned in the text included in the document, preferably soon after the first mention of it? And, conversely, is every one of these items that is displayed referenced somewhere in the text, where necessary? Some images are purely scene-setting and don’t need an introduction.
Do all of these items have a caption and is that caption correct? If you have a series of images of the same type, are they consistently sized and positioned?
If a picture is of a person, is it the right person and is their name correctly spelled? A contributor may have put a placeholder image in but then forgot to put the correct face in the frame. Your company website, LinkedIn or Google can be good places to check if you don’t know. I once decided that the picture of a lady’s face didn’t really go with the caption ‘John’, which prompted me to check every biographical image in the document. While I was pleased I spent that ten-minutes on LinkedIn and Google to match faces to names, I did feel like a bit of a stalker…
If the caption under an image of the Angel of the North says, ‘The Tyne Bridge is a famous North East landmark’, it suggests someone had a change of heart but forgot to change the caption. And while we’re on the subject, have you attributed the image and paid for its use, if necessary?
If you have graphical information, ensure the axes are correctly labelled and that there is a legend. If tables or graphs have been embedded directly from MS Excel make sure you have the right one, that is hasn’t floated somewhere inappropriate or resized itself. Also, ensure it won’t keep changing unless it is supposed to be dynamic!
You may have been given a table of figures by another person. If there is a ‘Total’ field, perform a sanity check that it reflects the sum of the values it is supposed to. If there isn’t time to get something corrected, you may have to use your judgement about whether or not it is best just to leave something out.
If you have a table of contents, check that the displayed page numbers are correct. The most common fault here is in not using the MS Word default heading styles or failing to toggle field codes.
If you have internal references and external hyperlinks embedded, check they take you to the correct place.
Companies are protective of the message portrayed by their unique branding. It is important to adhere to the company image in anything published on their behalf. There may be guides about what colour schemes to use and how to include the company logos. There may be a library of templates to use for different document types. Tip: look for an up-to-date template rather than just updating an old document by periodically checking on the company website.
You may want to add in additional colours that aren’t part of the logo, but beware of using anything that reminiscent of a competitor! If there is no company style guide regarding colour, play it safe and stick to what is in the logo.
For presentations using MS PowerPoint, for example, your company may have restrictions on what animations are allowed and guidance on how much information to put into one slide. This is a whole other subject, but to sum it up: less is more.
Get it done!
This is a business, everyone is busy, and you must publish by your deadline. In this case, with the best will in the world, what you publish will probably have one or two mistakes. We are only human (and when the machines take over the publishing, there will still be the odd glitch, as even if those computers are programmed by computers, the first computer was programmed by a human). We can strive for perfection, but not-quite-perfect is often good enough. Recognising when to stop is another vital skill.
You may decide to call in a professional proofreader – perhaps a freelancer who will work outside of office hours and have a detached view of the documentation, far enough removed to tell you what will and won’t make sense. This can be beneficial for smaller organisations without dedicated communications teams, or to bolster those teams during busy periods. If so, I would love to hear from you.
Handy checklist attached! JT Foster Proofreading Checklist
 This is the correct spelling!