Your 7-step guide to good charity proofreading

You’ve spent months working on a publication. The copy is fantastic and your design looks great. The last thing you want is to send thousands of copies to print then spot a glaring error on page one.

Good proofreading means error-free, accurate publications. It is an essential part of the process, and should be done when your publication is absolutely complete – when your designer has laid it out and you are completely happy with everything.

Here’s how to do an effective proofread:

1. Print out

It is considerably more difficult to read and spot mistakes on screen than on paper. So print out your publication, pick up a pen, and find yourself a quiet corner.

2. Decide how you’re going to mark it up

You have three options for how to make the changes you want clear to the designer and other colleagues.

If you’re close enough to the people you’re working with to deliver your changes by hand, proofreading marks work well. These are a universal set of marks (Google them!) to show the changes you want. You write them on to the page, saving time writing up changes on screen.

If you need to share changes by email, PDF sticky notes are probably the best option. You can use them to mark up a PDF to show where you want changes. Otherwise, you can write a list of changes in a word processed document, but this can be time consuming.

3. Read each page once for sense and flow

At the proofreading stage, you shouldn’t be looking to make major changes to your copy; the time for that has passed. But do look for any awkward sentences, or any copy that doesn’t make sense or flows badly. Start by reading over each page for sense and flow, before you do a deeper read for errors.

4. Read a second time for errors

The next step is to carefully read each page for errors. These include spelling and grammar mistakes and typos. To make sure you don’t concentrate on sense and flow, a good tip is to read each page backwards, reading each sentence from the bottom to the top.

5. Check for consistency

Consistency is all important when proofreading. Many organisations have editorial style guides dictating when to use capital letters and whether to use double or single quotation marks. If you don’t have a guide, make decisions yourself and stick to them. Some questions to ask yourself are: Do all bullet points have the same punctuation? Do you spell out numbers or use numerals? Do you use single or double quotation marks? Do job titles start with upper or lower case letters? Do newspaper titles go in italics?

As you go along, it’s a good idea to write a list of the decisions you make, so you can refer to it when the issue comes up later in the proofread.

6. Check for not-so-obvious errors

You need to check EVERYTHING when you’re proofreading. Check names of people, places and organisations are correctly spelled. Check that page numbers in the contents list match what follows. Check page numbers themselves are correct. And check all phone numbers, addresses, website links and email addresses.

7. Do a final check of layout and design

Finally, take a look over the design of the document. Are all the headers and subheads the same format and size? Do all the fonts match? Also remember to check for widows and orphans – one word lines at the end of paragraphs and lines on their own at the tops of columns. These make design untidy and you will need to reword your copy to remove them.

Extra tips!

Try not to proofread your own work – you’ll be so used to the copy that it will be difficult to spot mistakes. Ideally, have your publications proofread twice, each one done by someone who hasn’t worked on the copy before, to catch all errors. Even the best proofreaders can miss mistakes.

Looking for a proofreader? Read more about my proofreading services – I’d love to work with you.

A plain English checklist for charities

The Plain English Campaign believes that “everyone should be able to read, understand and act on public information after a single reading”. That’s surely something all charities should aim for too. What could be more important than making sure your charity writing is readable?

So before you start leveraging synergies to achieve world-class outcomes on key deliverables, stop and think. Here are six questions to ask yourself every time you write something for your charity:

1. Have you used long words where short ones would suffice do?

Why say “sufficient” when you could say “enough”, or “excessively” instead of “too”? Whenever there’s a short, everyday alternative, use it.

2. Have you used passive verbs instead of active ones?

Passive sentences clog up your writing. Make them active instead: the cat sat on the mat (active – it’s the cat that’s doing the action), not the mat was sat on by the cat (passive – the mat’s not doing anything, so why make it the focus of the sentence?) Instead of saying that a decision was made, tell us who decided.

3. Are you using nouns when you could be using verbs?

Look out for nouns like “completion”, “provision” and “reduction” – you’ll often find they’ve taken the place of perfectly good verbs (complete, provide, reduce).

By taking the doing element out of a sentence, they make your writing lifeless. Instead of writing there was an increase in our training provision, it’s better to write we provided more training.

4. Are all the words necessary?

Have you said something is “totally unique”? Stated the obvious by saying that “it goes without saying”? Described something as “new and innovative”? Stuck in the word “currently” to describe something that’s already in the present tense?

Go through every word you write, and ask if it really needs to be there. If it doesn’t: cut.

5. Could your sentences be shorter?

Long, complex sentences are hard to follow. Aim for an average sentence length of 15-20 words (fewer online) – though make sure you vary your sentence length too. Try to trim anything over 30 words – it might be better to make two sentences.

6. Is there any jargon?

Because you’re surrounded by the professional vocabulary your charity uses, it’s easy to forget that some words mean nothing to an external audience.

Look out for specialist language, and ask yourself if you’d have understood it before you began working in the sector. Could you imagine reading it in The Sun or hearing it on the ITV news? Would your mum understand it?

If not – make sure you explain what you’re saying. Or better still find a plain English alternative.

Can I help you edit out the jargon in your writing? Contact me today.