The Proof is in The Pudding

This is a special edition for National Punctuation Day.

The air soled ate swayed Wales, until his sun tolled hymn two weight; four more thyme!

That sentence does not make sense but it passes muster when run through the Microsoft spelling and grammar checks, so, is it correct?

In the last few months we have talked about elements of good writing in a manual and how small mistakes can distract the reader from the important information in the text.  All of that can be undone if you don’t have a clean and well-proofed finished product.  How often have you been in a restaurant that serves an ethnic cuisine and seen a humorous typo?  We understand that is just because someone didn’t speak English as a first language, but everyone gets a good chuckle, and  it delays ordering.  But, if you saw the same typo in the menu of a large, national chain your reaction would be different: one of annoyance and slight disappointment.

Good editing and proofing will:

  • Produce a better document
  • Save embarrassment
  • Maintain your professionalism
  • Keep readers focused
  • Make your former English teachers very happy.

Good proofing comes from having a process and sticking to it.  Proofing is hard and time-consuming so your staff will try to take short cuts.  Here are a few hints to keep staff on track.

Get lots of people involved.  Shared work produces a better product.  The Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) will proof for the accuracy of the information while those in an unrelated department can read the manual to decide if there are gaps in the flow of the information.  The SMEs know what is supposed to be presented and will subconsciously fill in the information gaps while the reader who is new to the information has no pretext and will more easily recognize where there are omissions.

After the content is set, bring in the grammarians.  What?  No one on staff paid attention during all those English classes? (To my dear friend, and frequent commentator, Dr. Susan Brunson, I offer our collective apologies.)  If no one on staff knows their rules of grammar and syntax (or can’t spell), hire someone.  There are lots of college students preparing to teach English who would welcome the work.  Find an under-paid English teacher to do the work – the talents will be well used on this project.

Now that grammar, spelling and content are set do a final read through and make certain that it reflects your brand culture and corporate vision.  Remember the lesson from the first entry in this series: there is no “right” style.  The style has to be a reflection of the brand.

Do the initial edits in hard copies because it will make the reader focus on the content rather than the structure.  Make a copy of the manual for each person that will be editing and keep a final copy aside for the final step.  You should each work independently and then compile the edits.

To do this effectively, each editor should read the draft through several times.  The first read is to get an overall feel for the text and flow of the information and what might be missing.  Make a second pass at the manual concentrating on content for accuracy and completeness.  The third pass should be used to look for consistencies in naming, capitalization, references, and voice.

Then look at punctuation and the structure of the manual.

Note all changes on the written copies.  When all editors have completed their edits, meet and assign a person to arbitrate disagreements about information and processes.  When all the edits have been approved, transfer the final comments to the clean copy and assign one person to do the word processing of the changes and then pass it on to your expert grammarian.

Bottom line: editing is a big pain with big pay offs.  It can even straighten out that opening sentence (which still doesn’t make much sense).

The heir sold eight suede whales until his son told him to wait for more time.

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