Brain Dump

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Sloppy Copy: Why It Happens and How to Fix It

Lisa Fahoury here with a confession of sorts: Typos follow me wherever I go. Websites. Magazines. Presentations. Even restaurant menus. See image above for a representative example in the wild (details blurred to protect their pride).

So I feel uniquely qualified to write on the topic of proofreading. Some of the more cringe-y examples that stand out:

  • An educational publisher whose 20 pp. product catalog included an accidental shout out to Frasier star Kelsey Grammer in the footer on every page
  • A women’s business organization whose email invited recipients to their annual Pubic Policy Day
  • A real estate group’s brochure whose 30-point headline touted Our Speciality

(Ed. note: When there’s a typo in a phone # or URL, why does it always somehow magically lead to porn? Asking for a former colleague at a major metropolitan newspaper.)

Proofreading: Harder than it looks

Old-school copywriters will tell you that proofreading used to be a two-person endeavor — one reading the manuscript aloud while the other followed along on a second printout. A second round might have also included reading the copy BACKWARD to ensure you were looking at each word individually rather than scanning sentences like a normal reader would.

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

The problem is, you can’t proof something you’ve written with any degree of confidence. Ever look at a common word repeatedly and hesitate because it “looks funny”?

Our brains tend to fill in the blanks and skip over mistakes or missing words. And the larger the copy, the easier it is. “Hey, it’s in 120 pt type, it’s gotta be right!”

And you can’t rely on spell check.

Yesterday, we were reviewing a client’s copy edits and wondering why they were insisting that CPAs needed an apostrophe. Turns out Microsoft Word wasn’t distinguishing between plural and possessive, and the client was simply accepting all suggestions without question.

Spell check has its place. But it’s not the final say. So what’s a content creator to do?

At the very least, eliminate the low-hanging fruit that spell check won’t catch. Know the most easily overlooked items, and pay special attention to them.

Here are 5 we see with a fair amount of frequency. Mistakes like this make you look sloppy, which leaves potential customers wondering, “What else are they careless about?” The good news is, now you know what to look for and they’re easy to fix.

Asterisk with no footnote.The body copy says this *. But there’s no *corresponding explanation at the bottom of the page. Because asterisks usually reference sources or disclaimers, not connecting the dots can leave readers skeptical.

Numbers in a headline that don’t agree with the body copy. Ever start a “listicle” post, then add to or cut down said list? If you end up with 5 Ways to Torpedo Your Credibility,  make sure your headline doesn’t say 4 or 6.

The dreaded serial comma. Now we’re getting into the proofreading weeds. When you’re writing a list, the serial or Oxford comma is used to separate the next-to-last item from the “and.” In this example — She went to the store for masks, hand sanitizer, and vodka — the serial comma is the one nestled after sanitizer. (Side note: One of our favorite bands even wrote a NSFW song about it.) Either is grammatically correct, just make sure you’re consistent in your usage (we vote for not).

Initial caps versus title case. Along with use of serial commas, this boo-boo most commonly appears when you have multiple writers and editors working on the same piece or a series, such as weekly blog posts. Some Like Title Case for Blog Headlines, while others (ourselves included) prefer sentence case because it’s easier to read and looks less grandiose and more approachable. Pick one and stick to it.

Table of contents boo-boos. Similar to the number of items in a list, it’s easy to move things around in a document and forget to update the page numbers in a table of contents. An easy fix: Use XXX until the document’s final and then fill in the final page numbers. Spell check will always pick up XXX. Yes, Clippy (remember him?) has a dirty little mind.

Don’t torpedo your credibility over easily avoided mistakes. Now go forth and proofread with a little more confidence!

PS: Think I’m kidding about how typos follow me? Here’s the thank you page for a research report I just downloaded:

Fahoury InkSloppy Copy: Why It Happens and How to Fix It
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