Try these tips for error-free prose

Your lead paragraph can be a grabber, your quotes pithy and your prose perfect. But if you allow errors--even little ones--to creep into your copy, they'll damage your credibility.

Writers who have learned the hard way how to avoid mistakes have developed their own tricks, techniques, and checklists. Here are some of their favorite tips for keeping errors out--and catching errors that would otherwise appear under their byline.

Do:

  • Practice the 4 Rs: Read. Re-read. Revise. Repeat.
  • Use your computer for preliminary copy editing, then print out a copy of your completed article. Now the real error-detective work begins.
  • Use a ruler to read your article slowly: move it down line by line. Errors are easier to spot when they don't have a whole page to hide in.
  • Underline or highlight all proper names: this makes it easier to check each one to ensure that names are spelled correctly and consistently throughout.
  • Read each sentence aloud. Mistakes in grammar, weak sentence structure, and fuzzy logic leap off the page when read aloud.
  • Call each telephone number, log onto each Web site address, and double check each address in your text. You might be dismayed to discover how often you misunderstand a number in a phone number or a dot in a URL.
  • Ask a writer friend or colleague unfamiliar with your work to read it and comment. Everyone has blind spots, so a fresh pair of eyes often will spot a weakness in grammar, spelling, or logic that escaped you.
  • Double-check information from your sources. To borrow an editor's quote: “If your mama says she loves you, check it out.”

Don't:

  • Edit or proof your copy when you are tired. You are more apt to add mistakes than delete them.
  • Rely too much on your spell-checker. Although a spell-checker is a great first step in proofreading your copy, it can gloss over mistakes. For example, a spell-checker wouldn't catch it if you omit the “L” when writing about public works projects or if you add a “y” when reviewing a concert solo on the French horn.
  • Assume. If something doesn't add up, whether it's a number or facts, get to the bottom of the discrepancy and clear it up. Errors are born in fuzzy logic.
  • Beat yourself up if an error does creep in, despite your best efforts. Correct it quickly, and make sure the correction is part of the ongoing record, either by clipping it to the original or changing the text on a Web site. Learn from the mistake and develop your own tricks for seeing it doesn't happen again--at least not the same one.