We know what can happen with panda bears as a result of poor proofreading. From grammarian Lynne Truss, we hear of one who downed his sandwich, blasted two pistol shots into the back wall of the restaurant and lumbered out, directing his stunned waiter to a sloppily punctuated encyclopedia entry: “Panda,” the entry read: “large, black and white, bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
That one errant comma between “eats” and “shoots” made something cuddly into something creepy. But the consequences of bad proofreading go beyond firearms in the hands of bear-like mammals. The very real disaster that befalls those who fail to proofread – at school, at work, in their personal lives – is that no one hears what these good people have to say. They are laughed off or simply ignored, and it happens because the non-proofreaders of this world generally have missed more than commas when they hit “Print,” “Send,” or “Post.”
They have written “hi” instead of “his.” With the help of spellcheck, they have asked to be “coincided” for a job instead of “considered.” They have left off end-quotes and periods, chopped off the whole end of a sentence and forgotten to paste the new ending. (Or they pasted it twice, back to back.) Or, worst of all, they’ve posted the entirely wrong draft: the one from last week instead of this week, the one missing an entire week of edits.
Readers are harsh and unforgiving
Such blunders happen to the best of us. And yet, when we come across a sentence like, “In myopia onion, the arthur of this article has know idea what is orwell is saying,” most of us can be pretty judgmental. We think one of two things: either (a) this writer does not care, or (b) this writer is 8 years old. Those would be mild criticisms, to be honest. No need to go into the crueler judgments readers can make. The point is that it only takes a few sloppy errors for your work not to be taken seriously — and hence for you not to be taken seriously.
The best way to understand how you are being perceived is to think of writing as another aspect of your appearance. Picture one your teachers. Now picture this learned figure with tomato sauce all over his or her cheeks and shirt-collar. Make it a really bad hair day. Add torn parachute pants from the 80s, and, to round out the image, a nice long piece of toilet paper attached to your teacher’s shoe. Can you really say that none of that, in your mind, would take away from that day’s lesson? Appearance matters. Call it superficial, but our perceptions are usually affected by a person’s appearance.
Can’t see your own mistakes
Proofreading is like checking yourself in the mirror before walking out the door. Whether it’s commas, capitalization or toilet paper, you know the areas that have given you trouble. Those are the areas you need to double-check before you go public.
Where proofreading gets tricky is that, whereas spotting someone else’s mistakes can be done from 100 yards away (at night, in the rain), spotting one’s own mistakes can be a lot tougher. Author Mark Twain hits the nail on the head in a letter to one of his contemporaries in 1898. You think you are proofreading what you have written, he says, but really “you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes & vacancies but you don’t know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along.”
To see what you actually wrote, not what you intended to write, you need to get outside of your head. You need to see your words – to hear them, really – as you would another person’s. One way to do that is to step away. Go to bed, wake up, and proofread again in the morning. Another step that helps is to look at a printed copy rather than the computer screen you used to write the assignment.
The absolute, hands-down, best thing you can do to proofread, however, is to read your work out loud to someone else. Why the italics? Because we English teachers keep saying it and you keep not doing it. You can’t believe we literally mean “out loud.” Maybe you’re embarrassed. You tell us you can hear the words in your head. So we watch you silently proofread a page for 10 minutes. You tell us you’re done and we push the paper back at you, asking you to read a certain sentence aloud. Six seconds is all it will take before you stop.
“Oh, wait,” you’ll say. “That’s wrong. That was supposed to be…” In 6 seconds of reading aloud, you will have found and fixed a mistake you wasted 10 minutes not being able to find in silence.
Hey. Proofread aloud. It works.
If you’ve read this far and still are not convinced you need to change your non-proofreading ways, you may be a hopeless cause. But in case it is for one of the following reasons, take a last word of advice.
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