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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Article: You Don't Need To Be Perfect, But Your Writing Does 

by Dana Blozis

How to Proofread, Edit and Fact-Check Your Own Work  
Having written since I was a kid, I've met many authors, writers and journalists along the way. While we don't all fit the stereotype of the robed, sleepless, alcoholic writer hunched over a typewriter in the attic, we do have much in common. In addition to being the winners of spelling bees and hoarders of dictionaries and other books, we love words. We love to read them, hear them, speak them and write them. We love them to a fault.  
We must have the right words in the right place at the right time. And, perhaps more importantly, they must be written flawlessly. We won't accept typos, spelling errors or grammatical snafus, because mistakes interrupt the flow and the meaning of our words. As a result, we expect perfection and we don't tolerate errors from ourselves or others. This philosophy makes it difficult to be a writer at times, but we can't help ourselves. We are obsessed with perfection.  
Living this way can make it difficult to meet deadlines, however, as we await the ideal word, headline or introductory paragraph. Sometimes we must settle for less. Sometimes we even have to settle for pretty good. It's a harsh reality, but at some point, we have to complete our latest assignment or project and turn it in so we can get paid. We have to let go of the perfection we covet, because it isn't going to bless us with its presence today.  
Our editors, however, see it differently. They will expect perfection, not because they are masochists but because it makes their jobs easier. If our work is flawless, they have less to do. They can focus on another writer's work or planning their next issue or project. To endear ourselves to them (and to get more work), we must dutifully comply. The issue is trying to balance our desire to be perfect with the reality that we will never be. We can come close though by carefully proofreading, editing and fact-checking our work prior to submission. Here's how.  
Proofreading—checking for spelling, punctuation, grammatical and formatting errors—can be a tedious, cumbersome task, particularly when attempting to proof your own work, but it can be done. I usually proofread on my computer screen first, making edits as I go. When done, I print off a hard copy and go through line by line, reading out loud as I go. I find that I notice errors in print that I don't see on screen, and reading out loud helps me to find words that I've missed or used incorrectly (e.g., there instead of their). For really important assignments, I'll ask someone else to proof it as well. In fact, I have an editing buddy with whom I trade proofreading help. I have also tried reviewing the copy backwards and reviewing for a different item during each pass through the text. For example, the first time I read through it, I might focus on spelling, the next time on grammar, etc. Make sure you have your dictionary and grammar guide handy too during this stage.  
Editing. In addition to proofreading, I also copyedit my work, meaning I check for misplaced modifiers, review style, check for flow, etc. This process is more intense than proofreading and can take awhile. It is also difficult to do immediately after finishing an assignment, so I will set it aside until morning when I can look at it with "fresh eyes." Often major errors will jump off the page, begging to be corrected. During this phase, you'll need to have your handy stylebook out (AP, APA, Chicago Manual of Style, etc.) to be sure that you've followed the appropriate guidelines for things like capitalization, numbers (figures versus text) and references.  
Fact-checking. Many publications, particularly magazines, will fact-check your work. In other words, they'll verify the spelling of proper names, check dates, key facts, website addresses, phone numbers and more. While publications often hire someone to do this task, by doing it yourself first, you can save the publication time and money, again making it easier to work with you. When I fact-check my writing, I first double-check the spelling of all names and places. I look at reference materials (brochures, bios, business cards, etc.) that I've been given, and I search online. If I am unsure, I'll phone the original source to confirm a spelling. I do the same thing with dates. For key facts, I do an Internet search, marking my source to either provide to the fact-checker up front or for my own reference should I be questioned later. This was particularly helpful when I wrote an article about a coal mine explosion in the early 1900s. My editor wanted to confirm that a particular mining town was second in size only to Seattle. Before she was willing to allow me to make that statement, she wanted verification.  
In spite of these techniques, we are human and it is still possible that an error will occasionally slip through the cracks. However, if you are diligent in your attempt to submit well-written, well-documented work without obvious errors, your editors and publishers will be more likely to turn to you rather than the other guy - you know who I mean - the writer who thinks he's brilliant but who can't spell his way out of a paper bag. Make sure you are the one they turn to for stellar, (nearly) flawless work.  
Happy Writing!  
Copyright (c) 2007 Dana Blozis

About The Author: Dana Blozis of Virtually Yourz is a freelance writer, editor and marketing based in the Seattle area. In addition to writing for publication, she writes, edits and markets for small businesses and nonprofits. To learn more about her services, visit

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