I remember the first time I had to proofread something. It was my third day on the job at my very first internship -- a small marketing agency in central New Jersey. My boss called me over and handed me a 36-page newsletter that needed to be proofed quickly. We had to send it back to the client ASAP.
I was decent at writing and editing, but I didn't want to disappoint my boss and our clients by letting mistakes slip through the cracks ... if only I could have someone proofread my proofreading to make sure I wasn't screwing up. But I don't know a business that has time for processes like that. So I just tried to be extra cautious (even though that still didn't ensure everything was perfect).
Thinking back, I would have loved to have a proofreading checklist. Since I know I'm not the only wannabe perfectionist out there, I decided to create the post below to help anyone in a similar scenario.
Note: We're talking about proofreading here -- not the first draft editing process. When you're editing, there are lots of other things you should look out for. (Check out this post if you want a checklist for that step.)
Having the right tone for corporate copy is tricky -- you've got to be aligned with the overall brand tone, but if it's a social message or a blog post, you might also have the author's own distinct voice to consider. Make sure you're keeping an eye out for both.
For example, your brand may have a super friendly and encouraging tone ... but you see that a writer's been infusing one too many harsh, snarky comments in their piece. Make sure you're course-correcting on those elements so that the piece doesn't seem out of place among the other posts on your blog.
When you're proofing, most of this tone issues should already have been worked out in previous editing rounds. Still, it's possible that a few parts may stick out like a sore thumb -- it's your job to notice and fix them.
2) Product and Persona Positioning
This is also something that should be dealt with before the final editing stage, but often positioning elements can slip through the cracks because they're pretty nuanced. Sometimes fixing positioning comes down to choosing another synonym or adding a simple descriptor to a sentence.
There are two positioning elements you generally need to fix: product and persona. Product positioning mistakes will usually be mistakes that misrepresent what your company offers. It'd be like calling Chipotle fast food ... yes, it's true it's a fast-food joint, but it's not on par with the McDonald's of the world since it uses high-quality, freshly made food. That's a core part of their brand positioning that should be addressed in your copy.
Persona positioning is another mistake people often make -- particularly if your company sells to several different buyer personas. Persona positioning mistakes usually crop up when incorrect language is used for a persona. For example, let's say you work for Dell, selling to both the average consumer and an IT department. If the blog post for the consumer used technical terms only the IT department persona would get, you'd need to revise those terms. Even if your company has tight buyer persona alignment, it's possible that little tidbits meant for one persona slip into a post for another.
3) Logical Flow
A lot of marketers throw around the whole storytelling aspect of content marketing -- that's not what I'm talking about here. What I'm talking about is making sure that each sentence is followed by one that makes sense. Flow. A logical one. (This also holds true for paragraphs, too.)
Poor transitions often happen when a writer doesn't have an outline -- creating an outline from their writing can help you figure out where you need to beef up transitions between sentences or paragraphs. If you find there's an illogical leap from one sentence or paragraph to another, that's when you know you need to make edits to those transitions.
Even the best writers can have grammar mistakes slip through if they're on tight deadlines. They know that they need to use "their" instead of "they're" but somehow it slipped into the post.
As the proofreader, you need to be hyper-vigilant about detecting grammar mistakes. If this isn't your sweet spot in the writing/editing world, take a look at this post and this post on the most common mistakes people make. Before you hit "publish," find those words in the piece (Control + F on PC or Command + F on Mac) and make sure they're being used correctly.
5) Style Guide Consistency
Abiding by your company's style guide may seem like a small thing, but not following it makes a piece of copy seem out of place among the rest of your work. For example, in the HubSpot style guide, we always capitalize prepositions in headlines that are four letters or more -- so words like "with" and "from" should be capitalized in titles. If we forget to follow this rule, it's not the end of the world ... but it does look sloppier on the homepage or in one of the section pages of Inbound Hub.
If you know that you have a tendency to forget to check certain important parts of the style guide, try to find and replace them as you would with grammatical mistakes.
6) Country-Specific Spelling and Jargon
Pretty much everyone who publishes online content should be concerned with this bullet point. Though international or global companies worry about this more often, the truth is that anyone from anywhere in the world can find and read your content. Don't you want to make sure they understand it?
You shouldn't eliminate country specific spelling and jargon -- especially if your main audience is local -- but just make sure that it'll make sense to someone in your industry from another country. If you're marketing to anyone in the world, the last thing you want is for them to click off your blog because they didn't fully understand the country-specific references.
7) Logical Images
Often, people will notice images more than the text in your content -- especially if they're just speed reading and scrolling through it. So make sure your images always make contextual sense.
Ask yourself: Does the image make sense on its own, or does it require an explanation? If it needs one, you probably need to swap it out for something else. Images are supposed to hit home the points you make in the copy, not make the reader ask more questions.
Lost on what images to pick? Here's a great post on selecting the perfect image for your post.
8) Data and Image Attributions
Frankly, it's pretty easy to steal content on the web, even if you're not trying to. After you've tidied up the copy and made sure you've got supporting imagery, make sure you've properly cited any external data and images. If you're unsure of what data and images you can use, check out this blog post. The last thing you want is to get served papers over using an image you thought was up for grabs online.
When you were proofing for grammar, you should have also found some typos, but it's very possible that you may have missed them. Use a built-in spell-checker or copy-paste your near-final copy into Word to see if you get any red or green squiggly lines. You'd be surprised how easy it is, even for a trained proofreader, to miss a tiny typo in the midst of a long paragraph. This step helps cut down on any human error that may have occurred somewhere in the writing or editing process.
10) Broken Links
Last but certainly not least, you should check to make sure alllll the links are directed to where they're supposed to be and that they actually work. Once you have the content all set in your CMS, just go through and open up every link. The one time I forgot to do this for a blog post, I ended up mis-linking something, directing our lovely readers to a BuzzFeed article instead of a helpful ebook. Though I'm sure you all enjoy seeing cute kittens, you'd rather find what you actually wanted to click on, right? Don't make your readers hunt for content they thought was coming their way.
If you're always fixing these 10 mistakes, you'll end up with quite a tidy piece of content -- if not perfect. It's possible that one tiny mistake may still slip through -- you're human, after all. But this list should help you keep your content squeaky clean, all without hiring a proofreading checker.
What other things do you do when you proofread? Share your ideas with us in the comments below.
Originally published Apr 22, 2014 8:00:00 AM, updated August 26 2017