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Writing Consistently Across Media: Ten Proofreading Tips

  |  March 6, 2001   |  Comments

In an age of lightning-speed innovation, consistency can be underrated. But it shouldn't be. Think of it as akin to an actor's staying in character. Companies that want their brands to be convincing need to stay in character throughout every communication -- online, in email, and in print.

Last time I wrote about consistency in online writing. Soon after, I received an email from Leslie Drechsler, a reader in Tustin, CA: "As a Marketing Communications Specialist, I'd love to hear your ideas on how to successfully implement consistency in an established business," she wrote. "I thought developing a company style guide would solve the problem. But perhaps there are other ways to approach it.

"Perhaps this could be the subject of another article."

Here's that article, Leslie.

The Importance of Consistency in All Communications

Coca-Cola, the most recognized brand worldwide, is famous for having designed the Coke bottle so that it could be recognized even in the dark and, if broken, at a glance by a single piece.

What does that have to do with writing or proofreading? Nothing. It has to do with a consistent brand "personality."

Actors call it "staying in character."

"After 'Blood Simple,' everybody thought I was from Texas," said Oscar.-winner Frances McDormand. "After 'Mississippi Burning,' everybody thought I was from Mississippi and uneducated. After 'Fargo,' everybody's going to think I'm from Minnesota, pregnant, and have blonde hair."

In each role, McDormand was convincing because she stayed in character. Likewise, companies that want their brands to be convincing need to stay in character throughout every communication -- online, in email, and in print.

Staying in character means being consistent across media. If you spell "email" without a hyphen on your Web site, don't spell it with a hyphen in print catalogs. If you omit final serial commas in online help, don't include them in emails.

Maintaining this level of consistency calls for a brand or editorial "czar" -- someone ultimately responsible for ensuring consistency of communication -- especially when a company has more than one writer, editor, or marketing communications specialist.

And yes, Leslie, I believe it also calls for a corporate style guide. (Creating a corporate style guide is the subject of an upcoming article.)

Ten Tips for Proofreading Online Writing

  1. Minimize distractions and interruptions. It's easy to lose your place and skip over text when you're interrupted or distracted. Turn off your phone. Close email. Shut yourself in a quiet room.

  2. Don't be the sole proofreader of your own writing. You're too close to it; you can't see mistakes others see.

  3. Force yourself to slow down and concentrate. Focus on each word and character -- letters, punctuation, special characters, spaces -- not on meaning. If you think about meaning, you'll see what you expect to see, especially in your own writing. Break large slabs of copy into small bits to avoid slipping into automatic reading mode.

  4. Don't try to find every mistake in one pass. Read through the material several times, looking for different problems each time, such as:

    • Typos and misspellings

    • Easily confused words (e.g., "to" for "too" and "your" for "you're")

    • Ambiguity

    • Inconsistencies

    • Formatting problems

    • Factual errors

    • Missing words

  5. Proofread online on different platforms and in different browsers. Check the text on a Mac and PC, in Internet Explorer and Netscape. If your audience comprises a substantial percentage of AOL users (more than five percent), check the text in AOL, too. Do this even if you have a QA (quality assurance) department. QA doesn't always catch problems in the text.

  6. Print out the pages for one final read-through. Proofreading on screen and proofreading on paper complement each other well. It's easier to catch some errors on paper and others on screen.

  7. Read backwards. Reading backwards can help you focus on the words and not get distracted by meaning. But don't depend on it too much; it doesn't expose things like incorrect homonyms and confusing word order.

  8. Proof any text in all caps separately and more painstakingly. Typos and misspellings are much more difficult to see in all caps.

  9. If there's an outline or table of contents, check it separately. Otherwise you'll get caught up in the text and miss errors.

  10. Proof the most prominent text separately. Ironically, the most prominent text is often the most easily overlooked. True story: Several years ago, I was the copy editor for "Nine," the magazine for Seattle's PBS station. One month the magazine actually went out to subscribers with this headline in 18-point type on the contents page:

    "KCTS, Your Favorite Pubic Television Station"

    It was humbling.

Coming up next: scaling down for smaller screens and why short message service (SMS) communication is great training for writers.


Kathy Henning Kathy Henning is managing editor of CommunicationFitness, a Web site for learning and teaching more effective communication skills. A writer and editor for 20 years, since 1997 she has focused primarily on the Web, and during that time has written and edited copy for nearly 40 sites. She also teaches writing and editing, and has an MA in English. Prior to her Web days she spent eight years as an editor at a law firm and two years as a magazine editor.

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