As a Legal Secretary or PA, you may be required to proofread a document before it is sent out. This means checking it over carefully yourself or reading it out loud with someone else who also has a copy. You may even be asked to just look something over for someone. If you are given a proofreading task, it is useful to know some tips, as it can be easy to read the body of the text quickly and not notice small, but important, errors.
Firstly, make it easy to read. When checking a document, try to do so from a paper copy, rather than reading it from a computer screen. If the document has a particularly small font, it is helpful to enlarge it so it is then easier to read.
One of the first things to look out for is consistency throughout the document. As you are aware, some firms have their own ‘house style’ relating not only to the layout of the document, but also to such matters as whether or not a particular word begins with a capital letter. For example, in their documents, some firms like certain words such as ‘Claimant’ or ‘Defendant’ to start with a capital letter; others may like certain phrases to be in bold or italic letters. There is often no correct grammatical reason for this; it is just the style they have adopted. When you are checking a document, you should make sure that the correct house style is adhered to throughout. Inconsistency is especially likely to occur where parts of a particularly large document are being typed by different people who may all type something in a slightly different style. When the various typed parts are brought together to make one large document, the inconsistencies will be easily spotted. It does not give a very good impression if there are inconsistencies throughout a document.
(a) Check for mechanical errors, e.g., a margin or tab may not be in the correct place.
(b) If a few words have been typed in bold or italics, make sure that the typing goes back to normal type where it is supposed to.
(c) Make sure that numbers are in the correct order and correspond to the relevant text. Footnotes, endnotes, etc., should be numbered correctly to correspond with what they relate to in the main text.
(d) Make sure that where brackets or inverted commas have been opened, they are then closed.
(e) Check that any mathematics are correct; and that names, addresses and dates are correct. If you are typing large figures with lots of zeros, make sure that the right number has been typed.
(f) Ensure that there are no large gaps at the bottom of pages, and that you do not have headings at the bottom of a page with no text under them.
Many pairs of words sound the same but mean something different, e.g., affect/effect; principal/principle. Check the correct meaning and spelling.
If you are proofreading, one of the best things to have access to is a dictionary. You can find some good dictionaries on the Internet such as www.dictionary.com. If you are in doubt, you should always ask – it is better to check whether something is correct than to produce a document which has avoidable mistakes.
Checking for Someone Else
If you are checking a document someone else will be amending, make sure that any alterations written on the document are clearly written and can be easily seen so that the person who types them knows straight away which part of the document your comments refer to. You should mark not only the text you wish to be amended, but also indicate in the margin alongside that there is an amendment, for example, by making a tick or a cross. If you are writing a comment on the document, rather than an amendment to be typed, it is a good idea to draw a circle around the comment so that the person making the amendment will see that they do not actually have to type the comment. For example, if you want someone to check an address in the document, you might write against the address, ‘Please check’. You would not want them to type that comment, so if you draw a circle around it, they will notice that it is something different from a straightforward amendment.
If your amendments are too long to fit in clearly, put them on another sheet of paper (often called a ‘rider’). Riders are normally numbered according to the page number to which they refer. If there is more than one rider for a page, the riders should also be given a letter, e.g., two different riders to be inserted on page 6 of a document would be called rider 6A and rider 6B. Make sure that a reference to the rider is marked on the main text where it is to be inserted.
Apostrophes are an element of grammar that is often used incorrectly. An apostrophe is an inverted comma (’). Most people are often confused by apostrophes. The rules concerning the use of apostrophes in written English are very simple:
1. They are used to denote a missing letter or letters, for example:
- I can’t instead of I cannot
- I don’t instead of I do not
- It’s instead of it is
2. They are used to denote possession, for example:
- The dog’s bone
- The company’s logo
- Jones’s bakery
However, if there are two or more dogs, companies or Joneses in our example, the apostrophe comes after the ‘s’:
- The dogs’ bones
- The companies’ logos
- Joneses’ bakery
Note: the possessive form of ‘it’ does not take an apostrophe any more than ‘ours’, ‘yours’ or ‘hers’ do. Apostrophes are never, ever used to denote plurals! Common examples of such mistakes are:
- Banana’s for sale, which should read Bananas for sale
- Menu’s printed to order, which should read Menus printed to order
- MOT’s at this garage, which should read MOTs at this garage
- 1000’s of bargains here!, which should read 1000s of bargains here!
- The Institute of Legal Secretaries and PA’s, which should read The Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs
Proofreading a website has slightly different requirements to checking a hard copy. As well as sticking to the basic rules mentioned earlier, it is worth bearing in mind that when people read a web page, they will not read it to the same extent that they will read a hard copy. Web users will usually skim over a web page, and if they do not find what they are looking for fairly quickly, they will move on to another page. Therefore, there should not be too much text on a web page, and what text there is should immediately be of interest. Text should also be broken up as much as possible.
When checking a web page, make sure that all buttons and links are working correctly. Check that any forms which need to be completed work properly.