How to Proofread Law Blog Posts
Careless errors in law blog posts are the grammatical equivalent of that spot of marinara on your best white shirt — simultaneously trivial and yet inimical to success. Your mother might forgive you, but your first date won’t. Proofreading is about making the best impression you possibly can on your first, and possibly last, chance encounter with the reader.
I’ve already written high-level posts on how to organize law blog posts and how to edit blog posts for readability. This article, the last one in the series, deals with the quality control component of the editorial process: proofreading.
Adopt the Proofreading Mindset
Adopting a proper mindset for proofreading is crucial. Going in, writers must appreciate that their work contains errors. They must also recognize that, after a writing session, their brains have a diminished capacity to track errors down. Proofing is difficult, “start with a fresh cup of coffee” work.
Your Blog Post Definitely Has Errors
My grandfather, a capable flyfisherman, insisted on fishing downstream from me. His was a generous gesture, but less so than one might imagine, because he consistently produced fish in stretches of water I had recently abandoned, convinced they held no feeding fish. The old guy succeeded because of mindset. He believed that the stream held fish below every rock and run, and that persistence and skill would inevitably produce a strike.
Written work of any length contains errors.
Our Brains Play Tricks on Us
In writing, the objective is to convey meaning. Writers, as proofreaders of familiar material, commonly pass by dropped words and even misspellings because the human brain subconsciously supplies missing information in an attempt to quickly draw meaning from the material.
The problem is similar to well-recognized weaknesses in eyewitness accounts: The brain lingers on familiar patterns or, by focusing on some elements of a scene, misses crucial details elsewhere in plain sight.
It’s important for writers, as proofreaders, to know that they’re going into this fight with one arm tied behind their backs.
Psychologist and typo expert Tom Stafford says the trick to catching typos is to make the make the material as unfamiliar as possible.
I’ve recommended below several strategies for artificially creating unfamiliarity.
Proofreading typically follows a long session of writing and editing. The writer is tired and there’s often the additional stress of a publication deadline. Imagine a sleepy security guard at the end of a long shift. Perfect conditions for bad guys to slip through.
The Modern Proofreader’s Bag of Tricks
Here are some proofreading tips I’ve picked up writing in a professional setting. In these matters I come to you as a sinner not a saint. Many times I’ve received a “nice article but …” email from ever-so-thoughtful readers.
David Foster Wallace observed in Infinite Jest that the aphorism “act in haste, repent at leisure” could have been coined with tattoos in mind. I’d add proofreading as well.
1. Have Somebody Else Proofread the Material
Your work, in the hands of another person, is fresh and unfamiliar. Ideal conditions for spotting errors. (Also, for some reason, humans enjoy finding gaffes in others’ written work. You should keep this tendency in check by explaining at the outset that the job is to proofread for obvious errors.)
2. Ask Proofreaders to Initial the Work
Whether hand-written or inserted as a bit of non-printing metadata in an electronic file, the act of placing one’s initials on written work creates an accountability mechanism that promotes attention and care on the part of the proofreader.
3. Find a Way to Alter the Appearance of the Material
This technique works when the writer is proofreading his or her own material. The proofer should create unfamiliarity by manipulating the electronic reading environment. This can be done by changing the font size, the font color and background color, or by adjusting column widths.
In Microsoft Word, it is possible to create a keyboard shortcut to toggle back and forth between “writing” and “proofreading” modes.
4. Turn Off Autocorrect
Autocorrect converts perfectly good legal words into nonsense. My advice is to turn it off. You lose more than you gain with autocorrect.
5. Temporarily Add Words to the Spellchecker
Correctly spelled proper nouns often trigger the spellchecker. In a work that contains numerous instances of the same proper noun (e.g., a party name), the writer might be tempted to ignore spellchecker warnings. Don’t do it. There is a good chance that some spellings of this proper noun are incorrect.
Instead, save the first instance of the proper noun in the spellchecker’s dictionary. That way, if the spellchecker goes off again, it will be for an actual misspelling of that name.
For example, once the writer has figured out that Dr. Seuss’s real name is Theodor Geisel and not Theodore Giesel, this insight should be nailed down by saving it as a correct spelling in the spellchecker’s dictionary.
Also: Consider adding a list of frequently used legal words to the spellchecker’s dictionary.
6. Remove Embarrassing Words From the Dictionary
Back when I was in the legal journalism business, the appearance in our publications of cringe-inducing terms like “statue of limitations” and “pubic law” drove management crazy. Both errors sailed through the spellchecker, of course.
It’s strong medicine — but consider removing “statue” and “pubic” and similar howlers from the spellchecker’s dictionary. When the spellchecker flags these words as possible misspellings, the writer can decide whether they are truly appropriate.
7. Proofread With Monospace Fonts
Sans serif fonts are easier to read online than serif fonts. Monospaced fonts are even easier to read. For writing and proofing, consider using Courier or, better yet, monospaced sans serif fonts such as Menlo or Anonymous Pro.
8. Quadruple-Check the Final Edits
Final edits in blog posts tend to be made in the title, the lede sentence, the subheads, and the conclusion. By the time the post is ready to publish, the latest edits have received the least amount of scrutiny. These parts of the post should be scrupulously proofed. Errors are likely hidden there.
Moroever — as if the proofer needs additional motivation — the title and first few sentences are the most-read parts of any blog post.
9. Go Old School: Print it Out
Many proofreaders print out work and go over it with a marker and pen. Written work feels less claustrophobic in print. The difference in presentation, and relative ease on the proofer’s eyes, are often just the trick for spotting errors.
10. Keep the Style Guide Handy
All editorial operations should have a style guide. Style guides promote uniformity and give published work a polished look. They also promote productivity by saving writers and proofreaders time they would otherwise have to spend answering — over and over again — mundane questions regarding spelling and editorial style conventions.
Have Faith in a Well-Designed Process
The trick to producing clean copy is to have a well-thought-out, documented editorial process that is appropriate for the work in question. Don’t rely on a single individual’s talent alone.
For a blog post, a workable editorial process might be:
- Self-editing session by the post author;
- Brief, but substantive, review by another attorney;
- Proofreading session by another individual, not necessarily an attorney;
- Final quality control check by the post author.
Of course, these steps can be trimmed or augmented depending on the law blogger’s individual circumstances. Some posts might not require this much attention. In all cases, however, it is critical to introduce time, unfamiliarity, and another set of eyes into the editorial process.