Proofreading white papers doesn’t sound like fun, but it is critically important for companies that use white papers to educate and inform their prospects, customers, or other stakeholders. When errors, typos, and similar problems appear in white papers, they undermine the image of authority and expertise the organization producing the white paper hopes to create.
Proofreading white papers protects reputations
The mistakes that get through when white papers do not receive adequate proofreading may seem harmless but can damage an organization’s reputation. The best analogy I’ve encountered focuses on a handsome, well-dressed salesman. His hair and teeth are perfect, his eyes a deep blue, his Armani suit appears to have been tailor-made, and his silk tie is a work of art. But when you look at that tie, there’s a glob of brown mustard left over from lunch. Long after you forget his smile, his suit, and what it was he was trying to sell you, you’ll remember him as that guy with the mustard.
Causes of proofreading problems
In recent years, I’ve noticed a dramatic increase in the number of typos and other mistakes in white papers and other materials produced by companies and organizations. I believe there are three factors behind this increase. First, there’s an eagerness to product materials much too quickly, which can lead to cutting corners. Second, too many writers put too much trust in the capabilities of spellcheckers in software, which are not effective proofreaders. Finally, there’s growing ignorance about spelling and language.
White paper mistakes are easy to prevent
Typos and the other mistakes that impair a white paper’s effectiveness are remarkably easy to prevent. The best way to keep them from embarrassing your organization is to become better at proofreading. The challenge with proofreading is that your brain knows what the words are supposed to say, so it thinks what you’re seeing is correct. By taking a few simple steps, you can trick your brain and become a remarkably effective proofreader.
Take time to focus
The most important way to get better is to concentrate on the task. Devote your full attention to what you’re proofreading and remove distractions. Give yourself the time you need because rushing isn’t conducive to a careful review.
Don’t rely on spellcheckers
Spellcheckers and grammar-checkers are amazing tools, but they aren’t enough. They can’t always tell you if you’ve inserted the wrong word, or if you’ve dropped in the wrong form of a homonym (such as there, their, and they’re). And grammar-checkers aren’t always correct, particularly where subject-verb agreement comes into play.
Proofread on paper, not your computer
It’s easier to spot mistakes when they’re on a printed page than when they’re on the screen. It’s also easier to mark possible mistakes so you can check them later and verify that you’ve made the correction.
Read both forwards and backwards
After you’ve read through your white paper, go to the very end and read it backwards, one word at a time. It’s a slow, tedious process, but it makes it easier to concentrate on individual words.
Block the next line
Our minds tend to read ahead, taking our concentration away from the current line. Blocking the following lines with a ruler or blank sheet of paper will improve your focus.
Read out loud
Reading what’s been written out loud accomplishes two purposes. Not only is it a particularly effective way to spot mistakes, it helps you identify sentences and wording that may be awkward. If it’s hard to say aloud, or if you find yourself running out of breath, you may want to reword it.
Find a proofreading buddy
It’s always easier for someone else to spot mistakes in your work, so enlist a co-worker to look over your stuff, and do the same for them. Both of you may be able to make suggestions to improve the other’s work, too.
Don’t ignore the familiar
During proofreading, we tend to ignore things that are familiar — our organization’s name, addresses, phone numbers, and the like. But those are places where mistakes are common. Transpose two digits of your company’s phone number, and someone else will get the calls that should be coming to you. Always give that information an extra review.
Read it again later
After you’ve proofread something, set it aside and look again an hour later or the next day. Taking a break clears your brain and dramatically improves the chances you’ll spot a mistake you missed earlier.