Spare the Spellcheck

Be self-reliant when proofreading your documents

“Halo, I’m sorry to trouble you, I know your busty, but you sued us recently for some tiepin work and I wandered if you wood car to rate our services on a scale of wan to ten. …”

Apart from the fact that someone is unintentionally paying you a rather risqué compliment, what’s the other striking thing about this sentence? Full marks to those of you who spotted the fact that it would pass most spellcheck programs. It’s an illustration of the fact that simply running a document through the spellchecker is not an adequate way to proofread it. A spellchecker cannot tell that “wan” makes no sense in the sentence but “one” does, nor does it know the author meant to write “used” but typed “sued” (always a bad typo in a legal context). Some spellcheckers will pick up “tiepin” when rendered as one word, but not all of them will, and none of them will pick up that the writer meant “typing”. 

When you are working under high pressure and to very tight deadlines (and when are we not?), it can be tempting simply to spellcheck a document and hand it back to your boss for her or him to do all of the proofreading. Remember, though, that your boss is under at least the same pressure and probably more, and is working to the same deadline as you. Nothing is more likely to provoke an explosion of wrath from the office next door than a document with daft spelling errors – where “rough” is spelled as “ruff” on several occasions, for example, or Mr Double-Barrel of counsel is described as a “banister specialising in this kind of case”.

Of course, it’s easy to sort out mistakes like this with the Find and Replace feature, as long as the misspelling is consistent throughout the document – but this is one of those failures at work which can do a lot of damage even though it is simple to put right. Your boss gets the impression that you paid little or no attention to the quality of the work you were typing, and now feels obliged to proofread every page of the document within an inch of its life. That costs time and creates stress, both of which your boss can probably ill afford. Not only that, but it distracts your boss from looking at the really fine detail of the document, which is his or her real responsibility. 

If you proofread the document to make sure, for example, that there are no obvious misspellings and that all proper names have been rendered correctly, you are leaving your boss free to do the fine-tuned proofreading, like making sure that the zeros and decimal points are in the right place. This really can matter. In one infamous case in the U.S. 25 years ago, a figure of $92,885,000 was mistyped as $92,885. The lawyer who drafted the contract did not notice the mistake, and the same mistake was then repeated in numerous other contracts by reference. When the parties later went to court, it was vigorously argued that the debtor should pay only ninety-two thousand dollars as opposed to ninety-two million, and it took several court cases, several years and a great deal of money to put the matter right. The blame was given to “a Secretary”, which, though unfair (it was surely the lawyer’s job to ensure that the correct figures were used), is predictable. Don’t let it happen to you. 

Presenting a draft with no glaring – and therefore distracting – errors is always going to impress your boss with your commitment to your work. The trouble is that, as most of us know, it’s quite difficult to proofread well a document well that you have been working on for some time or against the clock. If you have the time, it’s best to take a break before sitting down to proofread, even if it’s only going for a quick walk around the office or having a small cup of coffee. It will always be easier to spot errors when you come to the document with fresh eyes. 

It’s also easier to read through a printed document than to proofread on screen; it’s worth printing even emails out if they are important enough to warrant it. Nobody wants to send an error-laden email to the managing partner, to give just one ghastly example, if they can help it.  

If you are really short of time, literally looking at the document in a different way can help. One tip from professional proofreaders is to reread the document starting from the end and going towards the beginning; this may make the errors stand out more. If you have the ability to read documents upside down, this may also help. If your desk is in a quiet spot or you are able to keep your voice low, proofreaders also recommend reading the document out loud to yourself, though with very intricately worded contracts this may not be such a good plan, as even lawyers will struggle to keep the thread through more than a few pages. 

Finally, proofreading is not editing. You may be sure that your boss has committed some grammatical error or believe that a phrase in the document is confusing, but unless you and your boss know each other very well and you have an agreement about it, don’t correct errors in grammar or try to improve the phrasing. Your boss will probably catch the mistakes when he or she reviews the document; but if these mistakes are still there when the marked-up version is handed back to you, and you honestly believe that they will make a bad impression, try to point them out as tactfully as you can. If you have made a good save and spared your boss’s blushes, you are likely to get credit for that, provided you approach things in the right way. Be polite, be accurate – and above all, be eagle-eyed!