Writer, Proof Thyself

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August 18, 2011 by bradcharlesbeals

Proofing your own copy is like tickling yourself—you’d think it would work, but it doesn’t. Just ask Lynne Truss, the author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Here’s the complete title of her book:

Eats, Shoots and Leaves:

A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation 

And in the subtitle we find, of all things, an error in punctuation. The compound modifier zero tolerance, because it modifies a noun immediately following, needs to be hyphenated, as in zero-tolerance approach.

(It’s a great object lesson for copy folk, but don’t let the slip-up prejudice you against Truss’s book—it’s a great read, and no, I’m not forgetting that it’s about punctuation.)

The more time a writer spends with a piece of copy, the more familiar it becomes. If errors aren’t caught early, the writer’s eye and brain (they’re the same organ, really) will begin superimposing correct form onto the copy. You’ll read it correctly because the sentence’s content and syntax encourage you to anticipate and assume the correct form. It’s nothing new; we see what we want to see.

Some remedies:

  • spell check is a start, but it will miss distinctions between words like wear and where
  • reading aloud is helpful for broader form concerns like sentence fragments, misplaced or dangling modifiers, and style, but it won’t catch spelling and typo problems
  • reading copy word for word in reverse—this eliminates the brain’s assumptions about form since there’s no syntax to hypnotize you. This is a good complement to reading aloud as it will only catch spelling and typo errors.
  • farming the copy out to a proofreader for one last pass

But your best bet is to be doing all four. That’s the true zero-tolerance approach to proofing. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need my wife to read this before I post.

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