Articles Riddled With Errors? Put a detective on the case
By Caroline Vella, Freelance Content Writer and Editor
From email to sales pitches to blogs and social media posts, writing has become essential in all walks of life and business. And wherever there’s writing, there’s editing. Or at least there should be, if you want to deliver the highest quality content. Being an editor is a lot like being a detective. Your job is to uncover the details that others have overlooked – evidence of foul play, so to speak.
If you treat the editing process as if you’re conducting a thorough investigation, you’ll catch any issues before you hit ‘Publish’ or ‘Send.’ Whether you’re reviewing your own work, or tasked with eyeing someone else’s, here are five ways some good sleuthing can help you edit like a pro.
1. Ask: Does the story add up?
First, review the overall theme of your content. Reread your work to ensure you’re saying exactly what you mean, and that your message is clear, concise, and correct. Even a simple email or quick social post should have a cohesive beginning, middle, and end. Organize your timeline and eliminate anything superfluous. Each thought should flow seamlessly into the next, leaving no traces of disjointed confusion.
Here’s a real world example of a story that wasn’t what it seemed: Chris’ recent article about icebergs initially included a long diatribe about his personal experience. During editing, it became clear that the simple analogy was buried under too many words, so we cut it down from 1,000 words to only 600. In almost all cases, you can say more with less.
2. Search for clues
Once you’ve gotten your story straight, inspect every word, every sentence, and every last everything with a fine-tooth comb. Start by correcting obvious spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors, but then go deeper. Look for inconsistencies in overall tone, verb tenses, and points of view. If you’re puzzled by a rule of grammar or syntax, the right answer is a quick Google search away with a myriad of resources like Grammar Girl or Grammarly. And whenever it’s available, always refer to your style guide. Do your research and don’t stop digging until you’ve unearthed every truth.
It may seem like a minor point, but a recent 6,000-word white paper we rewrote for a client used key word and keyword interchangeably. If the company wants to be seen as the ‘definitive’ source on a subject, little imperfections erode credibility. When readers notice several inconsistencies, it begs the question: What else did the company overlook?
3. Check your facts
Make sure every reference and source you are citing is correctly spelled and properly attributed. Commonly overlooked references include:
People’s names (e.g. quoting ‘Christy’ when it’s ‘Cristy’)
Job titles (e.g. calling someone the ‘head of’ a department and potentially offending the true ‘head’)
Company names (e.g. writing ‘Forester’ when it’s ‘Forrester’)
Publications, books, or movie titles, including proper use of italics and quotes
The wrong spelling of a name or resource can be an instant credibility crusher. It’s easy enough to double check, so don’t get caught red-handed.
4. Read between the lines
Now that you’ve gone through the obvious steps, it’s time to use your instinct. Read through your piece again, but this time for feeling. I find that reading out loud helps on two counts: First, hearing the words spoken gives your writing a whole new perspective. Second, reading aloud requires presence. You can’t really verbalize and have your mind wander at the same time. Try it. Your work will benefit from your undivided attention, and you’ll get an immediate sense if something is amiss. Follow your hunch and repeat the previous steps until you fix whatever doesn’t feel (or sound) right.
5. Sleep on it
There’s no better way to ensure you’ve dotted all your i’s and crossed all your t’s than to let your work sit overnight. New insights often appear with fresh eyes the next day. Granted, it’s not realistic to sleep on every email or tweet (though it’s probably a good idea for some). Whenever time allows, give yourself added distance from your writing. It can never hurt and it almost always helps.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a writer or editor who doesn’t agree. It’s been a recurring theme in our interviews with Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl; and Diane Harris, Editorial Director at Considerable.
The next time you find yourself in an editing situation, put on your detective’s hat, arm yourself with this checklist, and root out any wrongdoing before your writing goes public – and your readers do it for you.