Correct me if I’m wrong…

[March 8, 2010]

Into the life of every copywriter a comes the chilling wind of self-realization. Despite years of practice, tireless self-discipline and an undying love of language, mistakes can and will creep into your text. Go ahead: click “spelling check,” have the text read to you by Natural Reader software and, while you’re at it, read your document aloud, backwards, from the bottom up.

It doesn’t matter. At some point, a mistake will take up residence in your document. That’s the reason every writer, from EVP to intern, needs another pair of eyes to go over each and every block of text before it’s printed, mailed, broadcast or posted to digital space.

Now in the last few years, I’ve encountered those who, using a penny-wise model of efficiency, aim to replace a proofreader’s professional expertise with sheer pluckiness. “If everyone pulls together,” this line of logic goes, “we can catch all the mistakes ourselves.”

More than meets the eye.
Trouble is, “we” consistently lack the skills to do so. In the first place, it takes a lot of training to correctly identify mistakes. Sure, plenty of people can spot a typo or even a true spelling error, but that’s simply not good enough. Even those with an eye for what passes for grammar tend to know it only as a series of artificial rules, mechanically applied.

In fact, grammar doesn’t exist in the abstract. The abstract models used in elementary school are—and have always been—merely intended to sensitize children to the concept of grammar. In reality, a major part of a real writer’s job is to build a customized grammar for each text, a grammar uniquely suited to its style, substance and flow of ideas.

Far from simply “checking off the boxes” a writer’s craft is a complex alchemy of personal style, regional speech rhythms and nuances of meaning. From the order in which topics are presented, to the weight they’re given, to the emotional charge carried by each semantic unit, writers weave a highly individual fabric each time they type, scribble or dictate.

Sensing that, it’s no wonder the average marketing major feels ill-prepared to comment on copy even in the narrowest sense. Far easier to trust to the winds, and hope the writer in question wasn’t distracted by simultaneously writing three other Web sites from scratch. Far easier to submit the copy to the client without reading it at all. So much for pluckiness.

An eye for (meaningful) detail.
Now should you find yourself in an environment that understands the value of proofreading, there are still a few pitfalls to be avoided. Most importantly, a clear distinction needs to be maintained between proofreading, editing for “brand style” and copy editing. Unsolicited copy editing is simply arrogant and a gross waste of precious time. Suggestions are one thing, dictates another.

Proofreaders must also understand how their task changes as they move from industry to industry. Those accustomed to working in publishing need to orient themselves to the peculiar way advertising copy is “brokered,” often through a series of touchy negotiations with the client.

As a result, I caution proofreaders to read first and mark up later. There’s no point correcting copy that clients or their legal counsels insist on. There’s also no point in applying the standards of, let’s say, journalism to advertising copy.

That’s because advertising copy is meant to be read quickly. It’s called upon to make immediate, motivating impact. That, and that alone, is the reason copywriters often resort to elliptical phrases, sentence fragments and word play—techniques that concentrate meaning into the smallest possible space. It’s also the reason advertising copy may, rightly, flaunt “the rules.”

So before covering a page with red ink, check with the writer. You may be holding the text to an irrelevant standard, as if re-engineering an oven to do the work of a refrigerator.

On the other hand, as every copywriter with an ounce of humility knows, occasionally the mad dash to compress meaning into bite-sized chunks can confuse the reader. In such cases the objective eye of a proofreader is simply invaluable.

Finally, a word on punctuation. As everyone with a dog-eared copy of Strunk & White knows, there’s a rule for everything. Trouble is, because of the emotional impact advertising copy is charged with making, it exists in a twilight region halfway between the spoken and the written word.

An extra comma here, an atypical clause there—or an em-dash not sanctioned by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences—are all essential components of this hybrid idiom.

Is proofreading essential? Oh, aye.
As I see it, proofreaders are an invaluable asset to the Copy team. As such, proofreaders should work in close conjunction with the Copy lead for each project and not be managed by project managers more concerned with task management than with motivating consumers.

In the end, it all comes back to values. Unless we’ve finally decided that language is simply an Inconvenient Truth, an obstacle to “award-winning design,” proofreaders ought to be considered a key part of every agency, as essential to the creative product as they are to basic quality control.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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