Sue was arranging a regional conference. She did what meeting planners do: arranged all the details, contracted space, speakers, equipment and more. She mailed flyers, sent out e-mails and posted the information on her web site. Distributors, vendors and speakers scheduled their travel to get there. Business as usual.

Oops! There was a typo in the meeting dates published. By the time the mistake was found and everyone was notified, more than $25,000 had been spent in airline change fees, additional airfare and other penalties…not to mention the wasted time and embarrassment this mistake caused Sue and her organization.

An ad for a rental house reads: “Three bedrooms, two baths, fenced yard and mice eating area.”

An e-mail to a top executive at a Fortune 500 company says: “Management was the driving farce behind the project.”

You want to find errors before your reader does, and before they cost you and your organization time, money and credibility. No one is immune to striking the wrong key. Here are five proven strategies for optimally proofreading your text.

1. Do Not Rely Solely on Spell-Check

Spell-check alone is not enough. It will not find mistakes that flag as words (e.g., “mice” for “nice” or “farce” for “force”), number problems (the meeting planner’s debacle), left out letters or missing words (such as writing, “The budget is available,” when what you mean is, “The budget is not available.”) You must proofread your text.

2. Use Multi-Sensory Proofreading

Your eyes alone are not enough. Say words out loud and point to words with your index finger as your eyes move across text.

Your eyes alone make for poor proofreading because your brain pushes your eyes ahead, skipping words, anticipating the meaning that it thinks is coming next. If your eyes don’t look at every word separately, you will miss some of the mistakes inside of words, such as misspellings and typos.

When you look at, listen to and touch words in text, you create a “checks and balances” system of proofreading. What your eyes don’t see, your ears might hear, or your finger may touch.

3. Find a Fresh Set of Eyes

It’s easier to proofread someone else’s writing than it is to proofread your own.

When you try to proofread text you’ve already looked at too much and for too long, you tend to see what you meant, not necessarily what you wrote. Get distance from familiar text by taking a break. Don’t try to proofread right after you’ve finished creating your draft. If there’s someone at home or on your team whose skills you trust, ask him or her to proofread for you. They are likely to do a better job at finding the mistakes in your writing than you are.

4. Change the Familiar Look

The reason proofreading our own writing doesn’t work so well is that we’re seeing and processing the same story, over and over again. Not only is this tedious, it also tempts us to skip words, to rush through the text because we’re tired of it and we already know what’s coming next. When we’re tired and we’re rushing, we overlook mistakes.

There’s nothing we can do about the familiarity of the message; that will not change. But we can change the way that familiar message appears to our tired, subjective eyes and brain.

If you are proofreading on your computer, change the background color of the screen or change the font before you check it one last time. If you’re proofreading on paper (always recommended, as the screen is harder on the eyes), use a different color paper; change the font, formatting, something to make the document look different from the way it looked all the times you looked at it before. When you change the color, background or texture on which familiar text sits, you trick your tired, subjective eyes and brain into thinking they’re looking at something new…and you’ll do a much better job at finding those mistakes.

5. Focus on Potential Problems

Prioritize. Spend whatever time you have on finding and fixing those mistakes that, if not found, could cost you the most time, money or credibility.

When time does not allow you to proofread thoroughly and repeatedly, search for the two potentially most costly and embarrassing mistakes: proper names and numbers.

Using a comma incorrectly or using the wrong word (such as “less” for “fewer”) is not good, but your reader may not even notice it, and even if the reader does notice, it may not be a big issue. However, if you spell the reader’s name incorrectly, that will pop off the page as “bad form.” Worse yet, it will be personal to the reader. People are sensitive about their names, especially if you’re asking them for their time, money, business or referrals.

Sending out the wrong date, time, phone number or dollar amount is far worse than using “less” for “fewer” or misusing a comma. When time is tight and you can’t look for every possible grammar, punctuation or spelling mistake, always scan for proper names and numbers, and spend whatever time you have left finding and fixing those potentially destructive mistakes in the text.

Ensuring mistake-free text requires a combination of finding what spell-checkers cannot find, not depending solely on your eyes when you proofread, and knowing what to look for (proper names and numbers) when time is too tight to do it right. Whether in a blog, e-mail, letter, report, proposal or contract, mistakes can cost you, so find them—before your reader does!

RONNIE MOORE is an expert in spoken and written
communication and author of
Why Did I Say That?
Communicating to Keep Your Credibility, Your Cool and
Your Cash! and Tricks that Stick, a writing companion.