Don’t Look Dumb: Proofread Your Writing

Over the last couple weeks I have been doing more reading online, and in that time I have noticed a disturbing trend among everyone from casual bloggers to professional journalists—blatant typographical errors. Even a single missed word can significantly decrease your credibility with the reader. And although this probably isn’t a huge problem for blog posts, practicing attorneys can’t afford to diminish their credibility with the court or opposing counsel.

I’m a pretty big nerd when it comes to writing (I enjoy reading Strunk & White’s Elements of Style for fun and relaxation), but even for people who are not as concerned with grammar and composition, it is important to at the very least ensure that you have written what you mean. There are, of course, the usual offenders: your-you’re, their-they’re, and the-teh. Those make a writer look sloppy at best and dumb at worst.

But there is also an entire other category of typographical errors consisting simply of incorrect words or phrases. This is what I have noticed over the last week, and when publications or writers purport to be professional, it is hard to take them seriously if they produce glaring errors in their written word. For example, here is an error in the third line of a Washington Post article regarding Verizon’s prediction of a date for Apple’s iPhone 5:

When asked about the company’s expectation that cellphone sales would go up 50 percent this year, incoming CEO Lowell McAdam gave out a little insight into when Verizon is expecting the next iPhone, when asked about the company’s expectation that cellphone sales would go up 50 percent this year.

Apparently the author really wants the reader to know that Verizon’s incoming CEO made this statement “when asked about the company’s expectation that cellphone sales would go up 50 percent this year.” It’s clear what the author’s meaning is, but it makes her look unconcerned with the content she is providing. Consider another example of a published typographical error, from, this time of an incorrect word:

Near the end of this school young, my youngest son, (twelve) came home all excited about a website….

Okay. Clearly the author meant to say, “[n]ear the end of this school year,” but you can also see that she was thinking about the rest of the statement while typing that clause; she jumped the gun on talking about her youngest son.

In both examples it is clear what the author is trying to portray to the reader, so to that extent the errors don’t really matter. There is no confusion in either situation as to what the author meant. But in a broader context I think it belies a problem that lawyers run into all the time: too much writing to push out in not enough time.

As The Saying Goes, Haste Makes Glaring Typographical Errors

As online publication has taken the place of the printed word as people’s main source of information, publishers of that information have become aware of the need to produce a higher volume of quality content than their competitors. As bloggers join the ranks of journalists and authors as full-time writers, there is an increasing number of people producing an increasing amount of content online. And since the demand for this content is so high, I expect that proofreading is going the way of the dodo, even though it is vitally important.

In the same vein, lawyers can have huge demands on their time for pushing out writing. There are emails to send, letters to draft, briefs to write, memoranda to submit, pleadings to compose, and more, and most of these things have deadlines that push on us as we are trying to get them all done. But errors in your writing are more than simple mistakes—they signal to your reader that you don’t care about the content enough to get it right, and they do it effectively.

Don’t Kill Horses Midstream

Really “good” typographical errors jump out at the reader because they are not what we expect to read. “Near the end of the school young”? What does that mean? It’s jarring, and it stops the reader midstream. Rather than continuing on to read the really important parts of the content, the reader is forced to go back over the error and suss out the author’s meaning. If this occurs in a one-off blog post for which the readership may be low, that’s probably not a huge problem. But when your job is to represent your client to a judge by making a strong and convincing legal argument, interrupting the flow of your writing can be incredibly destructive. And since it was a preventable error, your commitment to the argument and your credibility are in question now as well.

Accidents happen, and no one is perfect, but everything you write for someone else should be read over at least once before it is sent to its intended audience. Your writing is a representation of yourself. Do you want to look sloppy, apathetic, or dumb? Or do you want to look knowledgeable, caring, and convincing? Take the time to look over your writing—your readers and your reputation will thank you.



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  • Your image for this story is killing me. Luckily I have a wonderful proofreader I’ve found online to help with this very thing.

  • Our firm’s website has so many pages that have been compiled from several writers over time. One thing I’ve had my marketing team do lately is a read-through of each page for typographical, spelling, punctuation, and other errors. It was a large and tedious project but it’s worthwhile to know that our main representation to future clients (and the rest of the online world) is now confidentally error-free.

  • Deanna Pigg

    Loved the graphic for this story! As a paralegal, I’m often given drafts of other people’s writing to proofread. It still shocks me to find out how few attorneys have a decent grasp of grammar and punctuation rules. I’ve given up making suggestions on syntax or style with a number of attorneys with whom I work, as the ill-will generated is not worth the effort. Even the most gentle suggestions about clarity are often rebuffed with defensive arrogance. Only a small number of attorneys seem to remember that para-professionals may have valid contributions to make, and this insecurity works against building efficient and *effective* teams.

  • Graham Martin

    @Deanna: I really appreciate your commitment to trying to help attorneys become better writers. It’s unfortunate that you are often met with so much aggression when you are trying to help, but I suspect it just reinforces my main point: people look dumb when they write poorly or have typos in their writing. I expect that the attorneys who take the most offense at your suggestions are the ones who are most self-conscious about having those deficiencies pointed out. I would always rather look like an idiot in front of co-workers than the judge, though.

    And I’m glad the image is generating the desired response.