So you’re the writer, minute taker, or the translator. You have been asked to prepare a report for the department director or translate a letter for your office abroad. You have worked on the document for hours and typed the final full stop. You’ve proofread your own work. Is the document done? No. At this stage you are no longer the best person to review the content you produced. No matter how thorough you are, you need a proofreader.
Throughout history the simplest mistakes and typos have caused serious trouble. A paper by John Wilson from 1901 mentions hilarious – and serious – mishaps caused by poor handwriting, not too dissimilar from modern stories such as the £8.8 million typo by Companies House that drove a healthy business into the ground. None of these would have happened if the content was looked over by a second pair of eyes and a fresh mind!
So to avoid an embarrassing misunderstanding in your next communication, think of the following rules:
- Spoken word is not equal to written word
Non-verbal communication can lose as much as 30-20% of the meaning of a face-to-face interaction. How do you make sure you retain as much of the original message as possible in a written report or summary? A writer must use various tools to transform a speech into a concise transcript, identify key points, omit and use certain terms and phrases, apply appropriate punctuation, summarise and paraphrase. They need the ability to research and to have an intuitive understanding of the meeting, even when it’s complex or technical.
Producing a report or a summary goes far beyond grammar and vocabulary knowledge, and a professional writer must consider all of this in order to make the document fully understandable. Take a look at an example here.
- Knowing a foreign language is not equal to being a translator
Translation proofreaders have been coming to the rescue for hundreds of years, often needing to put right mistakenly re-written historical facts.
Wilson retells the obscure case of Napoleon and the French word “bois” meaning wood. In a certain sentry-box several soldiers had died, and, to prevent the supposed contagion from spreading, Napoleon ordered the bois to be burned. The translator rendered the word bois as forest; which would have led the reader to suppose that the whole forest was burned. The proofreader, after consulting the French text, suggested the substitution of “sentry-box” for “forest.” The change was made, and the meaning of the original was thus restored.
Misinterpretations of the context, false friends, or simple grammatical mistakes are oh so easily overlooked by non-native language speakers. A native proofreader is the person to put things right.
- We are only human
It took us roughly 7-8 sittings to produce a version of this article we were satisfied with. We left it overnight and proofread it again the next day. Then we gave it to a colleague who made around 51 changes to it, all of which we can confidently say were necessary. All subjective opinions aside, we believe the article is now concise and to a level we were aiming to achieve.
Whether you write in English or a foreign language, no matter how skilled you are, take your time to proofread your own work or, even better, ask someone else to do it for you. You may be tired or simply wrong without even realising it, and even a brief skim by a second person reduces the risk of mistakes.
Of course, not every communication is of such absolute importance that it justifies additional time and resources, but certainly in publishing, marketing and advertising, law or medicine, where the simplest mistakes have serious consequences, following the rules of professional writing and proofreading can benefit you and your company in numerous ways.
To quote Wikipedia, proofreading is “the last stage of typographic production before publication.” – linguists agree. Although procuring the services of a professional proofreader may require additional resources to be built into your pre-publication budget, they are vital when it comes to risk management. In essence the alternative is leaving oneself open to a whole host of risks: cost repercussions, time delays, unwanted publicity and in some cases, threats to brand image to name just a few.
So when it comes to text production cut yourself some slack and factor in a proofreader for that final seal of approval.