Copious amounts of research, check. Completed story about a real person’s experience as victim of taxpayer I.D. theft, check. Careful proofreading of facts and figures before posting article, check.
Phew! Calculate responses to my informative story, check. Four hours pass, reactions positive. What? A Correction? The wrong 1-800-IRS phone number? Stomach drops. Darn, how’d that happen?
I had checked that phone number at least three times, cross-referenced it against my notes, the agency’s website, even plugged it into a Google search. Turns out only two little numbers got transposed—and my eyes had skipped over them probably a dozen times. If only I had DIALED the digits on my screen …
Whether my IRS source got them backwards originally when talking to me, or I did in typing notes, it didn’t really matter in Black & White. I felt the sting of embarrassment for days, only slightly eased when an editor graciously wrote back a reply to my apology: “Don’t worry, it’s happened to all of us.”
Thankfully, she still sends me assignments and even better—trusts that I take time to check, and check, and check. You could say I’ve built up a trust account with this client, a bridge I believe was forged beforehand after reliably turning in information-heavy copy many other times with accuracy. I’ve learned that handling writing projects for clients with a vigilant eye toward getting the details right translates into more jobs and income, because you’re seen as a go-to, can-do freelancer.
Proofreading: Crucial to gaining and keeping work
I’m trained as a newspaper reporter, so double checking information is second nature to me. Over the years as I wrote copy in other arenas—from college alumni information to business brochures—I’ve slowly adopted a more calculated approach to proofreading my work in the final stages. Every editor and client I’ve worked with appreciates fewer edits and zero corrections. All you have to do is prove over and over that you can turn in that caliber of work.
Yes, creatively written content keeps freelance clients happy, but we also must hit the mark with correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and data. Freelancers who build a reputation for always getting it right the first time also have greater leverage to request higher rates for subsequent assignments. Arguably, you’re worth more for reliability and easing the workload of others.
My wrong IRS number caused me to reflect more about what I can do to catch glitches, and finding a system that flows relatively fast under deadlines.
See Trees in Your Forest
To keep your credibility from being crushed by a wrong fact or number, proven proofreading steps can find and fix errors before they see the world. I’ve learned the hard way that before you click that “send” or “publish” button, it’s important to slow down a bit in this fast-paced electronic world.
How? At least once, send a copy to your printer for that old-fashioned ink-on-paper scrutiny. I swear that somehow, the printed form helps the eye catch more errors missed while skimming online. I chalk it down to an eye-brain disconnect.
The writing phase requires your creativity: introducing a topic in an intriguing way, weaving words together that sing, smooth transitions between paragraphs, all part of what I enjoy most as a writer. My entry into the proofreading phase becomes a shift of mindset to run rigidly through checklists, mainly:
- Does each sentence have the correct subject-verb agreement and good grammar?
- Does the piece have varying sentence and paragraph length for a better pace as readers scan the article?
- Does any sentence run too long? Good rule: Nothing over 40 words.
- Are ALL the names and numbers really accurate?
- Did I pick the best word choices as well as active verbs, and will readers understand?
And as for those phone listings, I now dial them up as a precaution, just to make sure I’m connecting people to the right sources.
5 overall tips to avoid gaffes
1. Scrutinize numbers and names, double or triple-time.
Too often, these basic facts fall victim to being transposed, misinterpreted, or assumed wrong for the spelling of a Jon or a Tiffini. Go the extra mile to check their accuracy against other sources online, in reports, or call a source back. Sometimes, I even read numbers back to people to make sure I heard them correctly.
2. Read your copy backwards, word-by-word.
Yes, sounds strange yet this technique seems to force your eyes to focus more closely on individual words, and you catch typos and other errors.
3. Give it a rest.
If time permits, let the article sit for a day. When you return more rested, you’ll likely find the distance brings clarity to polish your writing and find problems. I’ve had a number of WOW moments the next morning, when an error pops right up.
4. Say it out loud.
When you read your piece as if an announcer on a radio commercial, your ear likely will catch mistakes or awkward phrases.
5. Partner up, especially for copy laden with figures.
I remember writing about construction projects with hefty price tags, and almost replaced a $1 billion with a $1 million. Only a slight difference. Ask someone to follow your copy as you read numbers against an original document or source.
Make It a Game
Bottom line, we’re human. Errors can sneak into copy even after you’ve read an article 25 times, and combed through with the closest scrutiny. I strive to get it right every time for names, dollar amounts, addresses, calendar dates, phone numbers, etc., so I must at some point switch from being a writer to assuming the role of a detached editor/proofreader.
I used to think as I entered nitty-gritty facts and figures into my copy that it was like walking gingerly through a minefield—one wrong fact might explode on you. Now, after writing up a first draft, I see fact-checking more like a game: Go back to START, enter Round 2, and focus energy into proofreading to build confidence that the facts are right, and right for the reader.
About the author:
Freelance writer, journalist, and photographer Treva Lind has over 20 years of experience writing for publications and business clients. Her feature stories and news articles appear regularly in The Spokesman-Review, Seattle Business Magazine and The Current newsmagazine among others. She also does photography, editing, proofreading, and copywriting for businesses, websites and blogs. You can find more of her work at www.trevalind.com where she also blogs about businesses, industry trends and tips for writers.