The Confederation of British Industry estimates that 42% of employers are unhappy with the writing and reading skills of young employees. They have to spend money to provide remedial training and get staff up to par. Why is spelling so important? A single spelling error on your website can cost sales.
You have about six seconds to capture a site visitor's attention (at most) and then she'll move on to the next site. If the first thing she sees is a glaring typo or grammatical error, she is more likely to bounce away from your site. This results in lost conversions.
It's almost impossible to never make a single typo on a website. However, by adopting tips from some of today's top editors, from all different genres, you can improve your writing skills and make your copy cleaner.
Let Your Work Sit for a Bit
In a study published in the Journal of Research and Reading, scientists looked at the correlation between how familiar participants were with a piece of writing and how many errors they made while proofreading. The results indicated that if the participant was extremely familiar with the work, the person was more likely to miss mistakes that someone who was not familiar with the text would be more likely to catch.
Jennifer Conner is a freelance editor. She edits for one of my sites and as a graphic artist herself, she also edits for private art clients, such as writers, artists and photographers. She shared these tips for looking over your own work and making it shine:
Print out your final copy and read it through. Sometimes things look different to me on paper than on the computer screen.
Read your work out loud. You actually taught me this tip, Lori, and I use it all the time. There really is something about hearing the written word that helps you catch tense or verb agreement errors.
Let your work sit for a day or two, and then read it with fresh eyes.
Jennifer's tip to let work sit for a week or two is spot on. In an article on Wired, University of Sheffield psychologist Tom Stafford shared, “When you're writing, you're trying to convey meaning. It's a very high-level task.” He goes on to point out that when you are working on high-level tasks, your brain shifts and focuses on simple parts of that task so it can in turn complete the more advanced processes. Because your brain is shifting back and forth between simple and big concept, it may not catch a typo. Your brain sees the sentence as you think it should read.
By letting your work sit, you can approach it with fresh eyes. You can also focus on editing one component at a time.
- Check spelling
- Check for passive writing
- Check for typos
- Check for awkward sentences
Yes, it requires a few more minutes of work, but your prose will shine.
Watch the Basics
Kathleen Marshall, freelance writer and editor for Brightline Media, shared some of her favorite tips for staying on top of your own editing.
The biggest thing, besides typos and grammar mistakes, which everyone makes, is that writers need to pay attention to formatting and check their links. Obviously this is for online articles.
Also, be sure to follow the client's guidelines. If a client requires image credits, interviews, a certain number of tags or images, make sure all of those things are covered.
Make a checklist and refer to it for each article until those requirements are second nature. I am always amazed at how often the basics are forgotten.
Focusing on the basics is a good idea for any writer. If you regularly confuse “loose” and “lose”, take the time to ensure you'll never mix the two up again. Use whatever mnemonic devices you need to differentiate the two in your brain.
One person can never catch every typo. I would even argue that two or three people can't catch them all. I once wrote a book that went through multiple edits by multiple people and we still missed a couple of typos. Our brains just want to see the words the way they should be and it is very easy to miss these small errors.
However, Mignon Fogarty, known as the Grammar Girl, shares some quick proofreading tips on her blog, such as that the reason for the poor state of Internet writing is that most of it is only ever looked at by the person who wrote it before being published. To write cleaner copy, she advises having someone else proof your work.
When this isn't possible, she suggests:
- Reading your work backwards.
- Reading out loud. (you've heard this one a couple times already)
- Read a printed version.
Fogarty's advice coincides with the advice of other experts in editing. Reading your work backwards is interesting, but I would take it one sentence at a time.
Take it to the Notebooks
Many years ago, writers jotted sentences down on paper and then took them to the typewriter. The reason was that word processing had not yet become widely available. Any errors meant using untold amounts of white out or pulling the paper from the typewriter, crumpling it into a ball and starting over.
It was simply easier to write out the article or story and then type it up. Today, we have fast word processors that white out our errors so we can move on as though they never happened. However, there is sometimes something lost by not writing things out longhand.
If you are struggling with edits, try mixing things up. Write your next article out longhand. Proofread and change. Then, type the article into the computer. You'll likely catch errors as you are typing, making your final edits much quicker and easier.
Change the Look of Your Document
The Writing Center of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill suggests changing the look and feel of your document to process the words a bit differently. For example, you might:
- Change the font size
- Change the color of the text
- Add bold
- Change the spacing
The goal is simply to make the text look different in the hope that your brain will process it differently.
Learn Your Common Mistakes
Leah McClellan of Peaceful Planet offers some tips to Mary Jaaksch, Editor-in-Chief of WritetoDone. Some of her tips were quite familiar, but a few stand out as unique ideas that might up your editing game.
One thing that McClellan points out is that every writer has a favorite mistake. Perhaps you slip into passive voice. Maybe you overuse the word “very”. Whatever you most common mistake, if you become familiar with it, it will be much easier to spot while you're editing.
Since site owners only have a few seconds to grab readers' interest, it is worth your time to proofread and make your text as clean as possible.