Words at Work

Kathy McIntosh: 7 tips for checking your writing to eliminate errors

Boise author, speaker and freelance editor. Owner of A Well-Placed Word.February 19, 2014 

Before you hit “print” or “send” on any document, be sure it is as free of errors as possible. This is most important when dealing with words with a longer life span, such as online copy, but mistakes weaken any communication.

First, let’s define grammar, punctuation and mechanics. I found a clear explanation on a blog by Katherine Wicoff (www.katherinewicoff.com).

• Grammar is the way words are put together to make units of meaning.

• Punctuation refers to those symbols used to help people read sentences the way we want them to be understood.

• Mechanics refers to the arbitrary “technical” stuff in writing: spelling, capitalization, use of numerals, and other conventions.

• Usage is the way language is used. Usage evolves and changes with time and attitudes. Usage affects grammar, punctuation, and/or mechanics.

Let’s move on to ways to check our documents. I’ve touched on several of these suggestions in earlier columns, but some are new, so stay alert (or awake, should you be reading this over a first cup of coffee). The best proofreader is someone else, because it is hard to find our own typos. But if you don’t have that luxury, try these hints.

1. Print your document instead of proofreading it on the computer screen. You’ll find more errors.

2. Read the document backward. You’ll see words you’ve skipped.

3. Pay attention to, but don’t blindly obey the spelling and grammar checkers on your computer.

4. Use the auto-correct feature in your word processor to correct words you consistently mistype. Add your personal bugaboos to the program.

5. Read your work aloud. If you are bored by your voice, consider trying a free program called Text Aloud, which converts any text into spoken words. Standard voices are free, premium voices come at a fee. Perhaps “sultry” comes at a cost.

6. Use the tip of a pen or pencil to physically touch each word (on the printed page) to force yourself to read each word. Try putting a ruler under a line.

Or (idea thanks to Mignon Fogarty, “Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing”) cut out a small rectangular window on an index card and slide it over your copy as you read. I think the hole would be hard to cut. Maybe a notch in the top?

7. This is a tip for fiction or creative non-fiction writers. I’ve just found out about two programs that check your manuscript for style: overuse of words, unvarying sentence lengths, cliches, too many “ly” adverbs, passive voice, misused homonyms, repeated words (close together), common misspellings (such as mispel) and other flaws. Editminion is in beta (newly released) and AutoCrit has been around a while. You can try both for free.

Error-free may be a dream, but these hints will lead to fewer typos and a better finished product.


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