Every writer makes the occasional absent-minded spelling mistake or typo – that’s what proofreaders are here for, after all! But any proofreader will tell you that it’s not these little blips that take up the most of their time. The majority of a proofreader’s job is all too often dedicated to correcting consistent bad practice on the part of the writer, which throws up examples on almost every page. Inevitably, this leads to further problems as the proofreader themselves, having changed 99 of the same error, might miss number 100 – or worse, might focus so much on 100 of the same minor error that it causes them to miss one major one!
To some extent this will always be a peril of the job; however, there are certain tips that writers can bear in mind to produce good copy, which speeds up the production process from start to finish. We’ve collected 10 of our ‘favourites’ here.
- Stop capitalising every noun.
Please, just stop this. Some languages – notably German – do capitalise every type of noun. English is not one of these languages. We all learned in primary school what a proper noun was: a ‘naming’ word, such as a particular person (Nelson Mandela) or place (New York). Only these proper nouns have the right to be capitalised! If it is simply a plant, animal, geographical feature, inanimate object or almost anything else, it does not require a capital letter (unless of course it includes a proper noun, such as French toast – but even here ‘toast’ is lower case). Deep down, everyone knows this – but it is so often forgotten the minute someone starts writing.
Certain exceptions include where a job title is used before the name of a specific person (e.g. ‘Prime Minister David Cameron’ – but ‘David Cameron, the UK prime minister’), or the title of a specific act is used (e.g. ‘the Data Protection Act’ – but ‘an act addressing data protection’).
- Think about the way your sentence works.
Sometimes what makes sense in your stream of consciousness won’t make any sense once it’s written down. One of the most common writing pitfalls is putting a clause in the wrong place in a sentence, rendering it confusing or even nonsensical. For example, the sentence ‘Supermarkets need to look after their employees, such as Asda or Sainsbury’s’ makes it sound like Asda and Sainsbury’s are the employees! This sentence needs rewriting so that it is clear who is who – ‘Supermarkets, such as Asda or Sainsbury’s, need to look after their employees’ is much clearer than the original.
Also be wary of sentences that contain a lot of pronouns, where it could become unclear who or what is being referred to in each instance. A follow-up to the last sentence, ‘They can do this by raising their wages’, does not make it clear who ‘their’ refers to – it makes sense for it to be the employees, but it could conceivably still be the supermarkets! Substitute one or both of the pronouns to make it clearer – ‘They can do this by raising staff wages’ is much clearer.
- Keep subordinate clauses contained.
First of all, a quick bit of English revision: what is a subordinate clause? An easy way to think of it is as an extra parcel of information in a sentence, without which the sentence would still make sense. The subordinate clause adds an extra bit of information to the sentence. For example: ‘Ian, with his wife in labour in the back seat, sped through a red light.’ Without the subordinate clause (‘with his wife in labour in the back seat’), a full sentence is still formed: ‘Ian sped through a red light.’ The subordinate clause gives us a little more information as to why Ian is in such a hurry!
However, since the sentence can do perfectly fine without this clause, the punctuation should reflect that. A subordinate clause should always be bracketed off from the rest of the sentence, either with commas or sometimes even with brackets themselves. Where they occur in the middle of the sentence, these commas need to be included at the beginning and end of the clause (writers often forget that second one). Subordinate clauses can also occur at the beginning or end of a sentence, but should still have a comma separating them from the rest.
- Know the difference between e.g. and i.e.
A rather specific point, but one so commonly confused it has to be included. These two abbreviations have almost opposite meanings and yet are often treated as one and the same. There is already a full blog post on this, which is well worth a read, but to summarise:
e.g. = exempli gratia = for example (I visited several cities in Canada, e.g. Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver…)
i.e. = id est = that is to say (I visited the capital city of Canada, i.e. Ottawa)
- Check that you’re not making up words!
It sounds crazy, but it really does happen all the time. When not fully concentrating it can be all too easy to assume that the related noun to ‘envious’ is ‘enviousness’, when of course the word you were looking for was ‘envy’. Former US President George W Bush was infamous for his skill in inventing completely new words such as ‘misunderestimated’. It happens most often with adding prefixes or suffixes to words – so if in doubt, simply check a dictionary first.
- Get into the habit of following a ‘house style’ – even if it’s your own.
No matter how extensive a house style guide is, it can never possibly cover everything. However, consistency is key for proofreaders and also in other parts of the production process (particularly formatting), so making a few decisions about how you’re going to present your writing – and sticking to them – saves a huge amount of other people’s time without really occupying too much of your own.
Treat your headings the same way in terms of capitalisation and formatting, both from section to section and within tables or diagrams. Apart from anything else, this just makes the whole document easier for other people to understand. (A useful note – increasingly, the trend is not to capitalise every word in a heading, but this may vary from publisher to publisher.)
In bullet-point lists of short words or terms, decide whether to start each one with an initial capital or keep it all lower case. If you go for lower case, remember to turn off auto-capitalisation or the computer will ignore your decision!
Use numbering consistently. Don’t start numbering questions: 1 a, b, c… then switch to: 1 A, B, C… or: 1 i, ii, iii…
- Try not to use the same word twice in a sentence.
It might not technically be wrong, but it’s sure to sound clumsy (except where writers might occasionally do it deliberately for poetic effect). ‘The postman posted my post through the postbox’ can easily be rewritten as ‘The postman delivered my letters through the mailbox’, which sounds a lot smoother. Think of synonyms you could use for repeated words, or consider rearranging the sentence so you don’t need to use one of those words.
- Which noun is your verb supposed to be agreeing with?
Particularly when different nouns appear in a sentence, it can be easy to pick the wrong verb ending. Sometimes the wrong solution may even be the one that sounds the most right in your head. The key is always to think about which noun each verb ‘belongs’ to. The most common mistake appears in sentences such as: ‘The bus full of youths were holding up the traffic’ – this is incorrect. It is the bus (singular) holding up the traffic in this sentence, rather than the youths aboard the bus. So the sentence should read: ‘The bus full of youths was holding up the traffic’.
- Read it back to yourself.
Too often, writers don’t read back what they’ve written – but this simple step is the easiest way to clear up anything you might not have been thinking about as you first spilled the words onto the page. Does it make sense? Has the punctuation you’ve used caused you to stress the words in a way which could lead to confusion? If in doubt, get someone else to read it through. Remember: if you have to reread a sentence, the chances are it could do with being rewritten or repunctuated.
- Run a spell check!
The easiest tip of the lot, a spell check is bound to pick up some silly typos, words you forgot to separate with a space, etc. Be cautious of the spell checker, as it’s not the be all and end all; not only is it going to be next to useless differentiating between so, sew and sow, it will also occasionally make suggestions that in the context of your work are incorrect! Always apply a little common sense with the spell check, but don’t leave it out.
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