CHECK PLEASE! How to proof and polish to protect your professional image.

By Jill O’Mahony Stewart, M.S., M.A.

As another school year winds down, I worry that my many writing-teacher admonitions will fade like the pinks and yellows of spring flowers.

“What will stick?” I ask myself. “What will they remember and continue to practice?” I fret.

With a nod to the wonderful restaurant review show hosted by WTTW-TV Chicago for nearly 20 years, here’s my menu of items to “Check, please!” before you push that send button, print, or publish written work, — even and especially –  emails. As communicators, our writing aims to inform and persuade. We do that most effectively when we are clear, complete, and concise regardless of the platform. We irritate and distract our readers when we do otherwise.

Here are the biggest areas to consider:

✔Names! And titles!

Unique spellings: just ask Konner, or is it Connor, or maybe Conor?

Titles: To cap or not to cap? Follow  AP Style guidance for when titles precede or follow names [it’s different in each case].

✔Do the math

Does everything add up? If you mention that something has been “going on for 20 years” but later say “…in 2003” my brain says, “wait a minute, that was 19 years ago.” Easy to check. Easy to fix.

Numbers: again, follow AP Style. Here it gets tricky: words or numerals, different rules for years, or the start of a sentence. Look it up.

✔Similar sounding/spelling words

Cite, sight, site

Pique, peek, peak

I have seen both of these homonyms, aka sound-alikes, misused in student writing. Do you know the difference?

Home or hone? Don’t get me started on this one. Almost no one gets it right. Sigh. Home is directional, hone means to polish or refine. I am honing my editing skills. You are homing in on a solution.

✔Dates, times – proper format, accurate info

April 26, 2022. No cute little “th” needed. Don’t abbreviate April. Add the day of the week for clarity. Wednesday, April 26, 2022, sticks in my mind.

✔Addresses, cities/states

Double check: exact numbers. This is particularly important for invitations or directions.

Cities and states. There are a lot of Springfields, but only one Chicago, San Francisco, or Paris. Look up the list of cities that stand alone, and then add the state [full name] to other cities for greater clarity.

✔The ubiquitous passive verb

If the word “by” appears in your copy – or should – your verb is passive. Turn the sentence around and make the actor the subject.

One of my favorite examples: “Attire that is worn by participants that is of an inappropriate/offensive manner is prohibited.” Isn’t it just easier and nicer to say “Please wear appropriate attire.” Four words versus 14.

So how do you create new writing habits to ensure clean copy? 

Ο  Slow down. The old carpenter’s adage works here: “measure twice, cut once.” There never seems to be time to do it right, but we always find the time to do it twice. Do it right the first time; corrections and updates are confusing and embarrassing, and they undercut your image as a pro.

Ο  Read it aloud. My number one tip, and the tip that has come from every guest speaker I’ve hosted in class. Repetition and awkwardness present themselves when you read aloud. Longer sentences – those requiring you to gasp for breath – will also surface.

Ο  Fact check and look things up. It’s never been easier and it’s worth the effort. Even if you think you know something, double-checking just takes a moment.

Ο  Writing is creative. Editing/proofing are more analytical. Let your brain shift gears. Some writers find printing out the document and proofing the hard copy worth the effort. Or even better: leave it overnight, when you have that luxury, or if it’s really important.

Create your own checklist; then use it.

The major benefit to clean, clear copy: your reader will focus on your content, not your errors, poor grammar, or awkward style.

Your professionalism and credibility are on the line. Take a moment, slow down; check and proof everything before you publish or print. Right, Ashley? Or is it, Ashleigh?

Up your writing game and have a great summer! A little downtime is good for our souls.

Jill O’Mahony Stewart is a writing teacher and coach. From 1986-2008 she managed Stewart Communications, a  PR firm devoted to “issues that matter.” She is also an adjunct faculty member at DePaul University’s College of  Communication. She loves helping students and young professionals become better writers.

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