The Byrne Blog

John Byrne Communicating About Communications

Nobody’s perfect, right?

Tell that to the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.  This past weekend, the hallowed home to some of the world’s best media minds — and my alma mater — handed out some diplomas with a typo in the school’s name! It was a big boo-boo. A huge oopsie. A face-palm-combined-with-a-sad-sigh-and-slumped-shoulders kinda mistake.  If you haven’t seen the wall-to-wall coverage yet, complete with picture, start here.  It’s downright embarrassing.

Feeling that spellenfreude yet?  I’m sure plenty of folks are secretly, and not so secretly, chortling over their laptops at how the best journalism school in the country can’t seem to hire a decent copy editor for its diplomas.   Well, don’t get too smug.  I’m pretty sure that Thomas Jefferson was thinking about proofreading when he said that eternal vigilance was price of liberty.  Or something like that.  Anyhoo…

How do you avoid looking careless (at best) or idiotic (at worst) when you’re pumping out all that content in your daily life?  Doesn’t matter if it’s a witty rejoinder in a Facebook comment or a heartfelt post on your blog or the my-job-depends-on-this report to the CEO.  Typos hurt.  Sometimes they really hurt.  Here are five tips to search and destroy the dreaded typo:

1.  Pay attention and finish your thought.  Simple enough advice, but in today’s ADD-enabling world of emails, texts, snapchats and all of the other digital distractions, it’s hard to stay focused on what you’re doing for more than, say, a millisecond.  In fact, it’s taken me at least a half-dozen tries to finish this paragraph, as I keep getting so distracted by electronic devices chiming or windows suddenly appearing on the bottom right of my screen (read me now!!! they taunt).  If you’re writing something vitally important, try to put yourself into some kind of digital sequestration by turning off alarms or closing windows, tabs, apps, etc.  Even if you’re pulling together something small, a little break from email can’t hurt.  And turn off the music; the only thing you should hear is the voice in your head (hopefully just one voice, or typos might not be your biggest worry).  Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that you make mistakes when you’re distracted.

2.  Don’t rush.  Inevitably, we hurry to hit send or publish as if we were going to be rewarded by Pavlov for finishing fast.  Where’s the fire?  Slow down and watch the typos never happen.  Now that keyboards on smartphones are no larger than a saltine, our opposable thumbs are doing their best to type correctly instead of grasping branches and bananas.  Let’s cut them some slack.

3.  Read it, aloud.  And again.  In the same vein of chefs who never taste their food, I am always a bit astonished by those people who don’t read what they’ve written.  When you’ve finished, re-read what you just did.  I guarantee that you will catch a mistake.  Another great way to catch typos is to read what you’ve written out loud.  Your ear will hear mistakes that your eyes miss.  Reading aloud provides an additional benefit of likely improving the overall quality of your writing.  If you can’t understand what you’ve just written, how is anyone else going to figure it out?  Finally, with all due apologies to the greenfolk out there, print it out and proof it on paper.  Based on potentially apocryphal studies, many people believe that errors are spotted more easily on paper than onscreen.  Who am I to argue?

4.  Trust but verify.  Spell-check and auto-correct are gifts from above, right?  In a way, yes.  But they may have just increased the chance that a typo gets by you, as you slack off a bit in terms of attentiveness to detail.  I love those little red and green squiggly underlines as much as the next person, but we all know these tools aren’t perfect.  And sometimes, they’re not even correct.  Doesn’t hurt to double-check something when you’re in doubt.  No harm in brushing up on your spelling and grammar skills, either.  Take this quiz, just for fun.

5.  Ask for help.  Everyone should have someone else proof their writing, if possible.  But pick a good proofreader and be clear about how you’re just asking for some proofreading, not a Yelp review.  If you wanted commentary on your writing style or quality, you would have asked Hemingway, right?  All you need is someone to catch whether you’ve mistakenly put an apostrophe in “its” when it’s not supposed to be there.  And, once the proofreader is done, go back and take the advice in No. 4.  Sometimes proofreaders can introduce errors into your content, too, usually innocently.

Like most things, avoiding typos isn’t hard.  It just takes some work and a little bit of attention to detail.  (I found at least three upon re-reading this post — hope I caught them all!)  And the next time you see a bad typo, keep your spellenfreude in check.  You could always be next!


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