When competition is stiff—as it is in freelance writing, publishing, and marketing consultation—the losers can be doomed by details as small as apostrophes in the wrong place.
In fact, over my years of hiring writers and marketing support, attention to detail has consistently separated the strong from the weak. That means copy that’s free from grammar or punctuation errors and typos.
But the key is not being perfect. It’s knowing your weaknesses and having reliable tricks for compensating. Here’s how to come out a winner.
Where details still matter
You may think proper punctuation and the correct use of tricky combos like effect and affect or it’s and its don’t matter as much in these days of automated grammar checkers and, for instance, online news publications that prioritize quick content over editing.
But plenty of people who hire writers or marketers still care. Why? Because in many industries, details still matter. Try convincing a customer that your programmers can compile a million lines of error-free code when even your website displays glaring mistakes.
As a result, many corporate decision-makers are sticklers. A colleague of mine once rejected a writing candidate because his cover letter said, “I’m anxious to meet you,” rather than “I’m eager to meet you.”
“He should know the difference in the implications,” she explained. Since we often had to finesse fine shades of meaning, she had a point.
Many New York editors say their desks are so stacked with worthy manuscripts that acquisition decisions can be swayed by which require the least editorial work.
I’ve never been that militant, but I have deep-sixed résumés from freelance candidates and marketing support teams whose work had too many typos. Their skills couldn’t outweigh the extra work of policing their copy.
As a published novelist, I’ve also spoken with many New York editors who say that acquisition decisions can be swayed by which of several worthy manuscripts require the least editorial muscle. That matters if you’re working on publishing nonfiction in your business area of expertise. (Not to mention fiction, which is even more competitive.)
Five ways to look better
I know four good ways and one great one to find and fix slip-ups that otherwise might sink your chances:
- Become familiar with the most frequent errors. Some are so common you may not know they’re wrong. Search for “tricky grammar mistakes;” this list and this one are a good start.
A key item on such lists: common verbal expressions that may fool your ear when it’s time to write them. One egregious example: “should of,” as in, “That writer should of had an editor.” It’s should have, but this goof is common.
The mistake is not being lousy at spelling or punctuation — it’s being unaware you need help from someone who isn’t.
2. Know your common troublemakers, such as it’s and its. (This combo defies even those who know the difference.) Using a search function to find them in the drafts. Thus isolated, they’re easier to reconsider and, if necessary, correct.
3. Change the look of your text to proofread it. Move it from your phone to computer or vice versa, or at least change its font, size, and color. Better yet, print it; putting it on paper or into a larger font often makes errors jump out.
4. Read your draft backward, one sentence or phrase at a time. Thus breaking the flow of what you thought you wrote makes errors more likely to show.
5. Best: Team up with a member of the Grammar Police—or at least a cold reader with copyediting savvy. (This is also the best way to identify your personal troublemakers.)
Remember, the mistake is not being lousy at spelling or punctuation — it’s being unaware you need help from someone who isn’t. Either team up with a colleague to find and correct your goofs or hire someone who can.
You don’t want to be embarrassed by your work, and neither do freelance writing clients. But you’d be shocked by how many upper managers delight in marking even dubious text errors in drafts meant only for content approval. (You’d think they had enough work running their companies, but this is so widespread I can only conclude that they don’t.)
It’s an ego game for them. But for you, writing—or selling your services as an entrepreneur—is a livelihood or identity, right? Use my five tips to find and fix more of your own typos this year, and you’re more likely to achieve success.
Plus you’ll delight Apostrophe Inspectors like me.
Joni Sensel writes for Fortune 100 companies, young readers, and you. Read more of her work on Medium: