BIG Partnership Account Manager and in-house pedant Jane Hamilton shares her opinions on why accuracy and consistency still matter.
Language is evolving; there’s no question of that. New words are regularly added to the Oxford English Dictionary and all manner of colloquialisms continue to creep into common usage. But when it comes to workplace communications—both internal and external—being clear and correct is of utmost importance.
Whether you’re writing everyday correspondence like emails and staff notices, or important documents such as business plans, press releases and company training manuals, it’s imperative your final draft is not only informative, but clear, accurate and consistent.
I say final draft because it’s virtually impossible that any piece of writing will be perfect without some form of editing. I know of a few ex-journalists who can fire off an excellent press release in a matter of minutes, but it’ll still need a good going over to check for errors and repetition at the very least.
Writing is a creative process and as we mull over words and clauses in our heads, sentences can become confused or words end up being misspelled—or, missed out altogether. We all do it (even me!) and sometimes it just takes a pair of fresh eyes to pick up your slack.
However, when the editing buck stops with you, these top tips should help:
1. Make a consistent style list
If you’re proof-reading a document of 500 words or more, write a list of all the words and phrases that may trip you up. e.g. If you’re checking a training document that uses the phrase ‘member log-in details’, the first time you come across it, make a note that you’ve decided to spell log-in with a hyphen so you avoid an embarrassing mixture of log in, log-in, and login.
And it’s not just words. If there are amounts or measurements in your document, make sure they’re presented in a consistent manner throughout. Think of your reader – it’s not helpful for them to read about some of your firm’s financials in sterling and others in dollars. Keep everything consistent, and if you must mention different currencies or units of measurement, it’s worth referring back to one consistently in brackets after each mention.
2. If you don’t know, check!
Everyone’s brain has an off-day from time to time and sometimes we just don’t know the correct spelling of a word or phrase. I only found out ‘under way’ (as in, ‘the lecture is under way’) should be two separate words relatively recently, purely because I bothered to check. Unfortunately, I seem to be firmly in the fact-checking minority, hence ‘£50m project underway’ is an all-too-familiar (and incorrect) headline.
The same goes for brand names: if you don’t know, check.
Scotland’s railway provider is not Scotrail or Scot Rail—it’s ScotRail—no space. Your spell checker won’t like it, but we all know the red squiggly line isn’t always correct. That’s why it’s always worth taking a few extra moments to grab a copy of the dictionary or grammar guide, or at the very least do a quick Google search.
3. Go and have a cup of tea
Those who know me well will appreciate that this advice would likely feature on any top tip list I’m ever asked to write, since I am a firm believer that tea solves most problems. However, here there is another reason for it. Regardless of your tipple of choice, getting away from your desk—and your document—will do wonders for your ability to proof your own work.
Ideally, someone else will proof-read your writing for you, but you should at least give it a first check and the value of fresh eyes cannot be underestimated.
Once you’ve finished your tea, you’ll see errors and inconsistencies you couldn’t hope to notice before you boiled the kettle.
4. No errors aloud
For those of you who got excited and thought I’d made a mistake in this heading, get down off your seat and stop punching the air. My last piece of advice purely relates to reading aloud.
Once you’re confident you’ve spelled everything correctly and consistently and all the information you’re presenting is accurate, all you need worry about is clarity and flow. Read aloud any sections of the document you feel might be misleading or unclear and you’ll soon know if they need to be altered for your reader.
Regardless of whom your reader/s will be, don’t let them be distracted by sloppy or inaccurate writing—it’ll only detract from your point and undermine the authority of your message.
As writers, we must guard the usefulness of English. Yes, I understand our language is evolving, but some things are just plain wrong. Plenty people assume the word definitely has an “a” in it… does that mean we should just allow an alternative spelling with no relation to the word finite?
Accuracy is imperative and as professionals, what we write should reflect a duty of care to our most precious tool—language. Very few journalists will use my press releases word-for-word, but I strive to make sure the content is accurate and compelling enough that if they wanted to, they could.