I Before E, Except After C? The Importance of Proofreading
When I was a high school student many years ago, a classmate visited my home one evening to ask if I would date him. When he smiled at me, I noticed a quantity of leafy greens stuck in his teeth. This detail – a small one, admittedly – suggested three things to me: First, he had not brushed his teeth; second, he had not checked his appearance before he ventured out to see me; and third – and most unsettling to me – I was not important enough to him to warrant the previous two items.
This cautionary tale is one that I like to share with people who are skeptical about the value of proofreading their written materials. My message is this:
Not everyone will care about the occasional spelling mistake or inconsistency – but for those who do, your error might suggest (rightly or wrongly) your low prioritization of the task or the audience at hand.
As an integral part of the editing process, proofreading represents its final stage – so think of proofreading as “the closer” of your sales pitch (regardless of whether your goal is to prove a thesis, receive Canadian government funding, or win a first date). Before you decide to forgo a final proofread in the interest of saving time or money, keep in mind that proofreading could make the difference between achieving your goal – or squandering your opportunity. That’s because proofreading has the power to influence three important elements of your message:
The science is clear: first impressions matter – and when they’re less than stellar, it can have a meaningful impact. When judgements are based solely on written materials as opposed to visual cues, it’s particularly important to get it right. A consumer may patronize a diner that promises the “best burger’s in town” but a tutoring service that vows it will “teach you’re kids to read” – not so much.
Dotting those i’s and crossing those t’s is particularly important when you’re trying to get (or keep) that figurative seat at the table. A previous employer of mine once hired an outside contractor to coordinate a promotional retail event in a major US market; when the time came to sign the contract securing the event space, we noticed that the contractor had booked us for the wrong date. Do you think we ever used her services again?
Consistency builds trust while inconsistency begets confusion. When something of any importance is on the line, why leave room for doubt? If your business is applying for Canadian government funding, for example, and you forecast revenue growth variously throughout your application at 22%, 25%, and 29%, the reviewer is not going to ask for clarification; he or she is likely going to be skeptical of all the metrics you’ve quoted – and move on to the next application.
It is absolutely understandable that errors in consistency will be made throughout a document, especially if it’s a lengthy one that has been written over multiple sittings and with the input of multiple authors. That doesn’t negate its importance, however; make sure you invest sufficient time in the proofreading process to re-read your work with a “fresh set of eyes.” Keeping a running list of metrics and common spelling errors (especially the ones that you make most often) can also be helpful.
The old adage says that the medium is the message – and in many cases, this continues to be true. However, I’m convinced that clean, consistent, informed communication – whether it’s on a bus shelter advertisement, a menu, or a 50-page application – says as much about the messenger as anything else.
If the audience is someone who values those traits, it can also make the difference between a buy and a pass.
Yes, everyone makes spelling, grammatical, mathematical, and consistency errors from time to time – but how forgiving will your audience be when the error is yours? (I once addressed a professional email to “Tood” instead of “Todd” – and it was the last time I ever pressed “Send” without double-checking my spelling.) The time and/or cost investment you make in proofreading will ultimately demonstrate to your audience that you care about the information you are communicating – and that you care about them.
At this point, you might be wondering: Feeling as strongly as I do about the importance of proofreading, did I ever go on a date with that guy who so clearly failed to review for presentability before asking me out? Yes, I did – but it didn’t last. I should have trusted my instincts; we just weren’t compatible.
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