During a recent visit with my sister, which always ends up meandering down memory lane, we remembered, both fondly and not so much, living together in Boston as we looked for jobs. This was (way) back when we didn’t have Internet access, and we actually looked for work in the classifieds and sent out real, paper resumes and cover letters.
She had just graduated from college, I was finishing my master’s degree, we were sharing a very small apartment, and we were both clearly in a big hurry to find work. In our respective haste, she sent out cover letters that began “I am recent graduate” while I answered several blind job ads with the greeting “To Whim It May Concern.”
Lesson number one: Do not trust spell check.
Lesson number two: Proofread your stuff, or ask someone else to. You don’t have to have an editor in the family; even non-editor can offer suggestions and find errors in a piece of writing, simply because they’re coming to it with fresh eyes.
But sometimes you need to rely on yourself — and if, for whatever reason, you think you’re not very good at self-editing, consider this: you will probably catch 90 percent of what might be wrong with your work just by reading it slowly, word by word (how many of us actually take the time to do this?).
And unless you truly enjoy syntax, you don’t necessarily need to know the grammatical rules behind why a sentence doesn’t sound right; all you need to figure out is how to fix it. Take the following examples, from actual newsletter announcements:
“For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.” (Most people know whether they have children (we hope). What they may not know is the availability of the nursery. Rewrite: Those who have children may not know that we have a nursery downstairs.)
“Please place your donation in the envelope along with the deceased person you want remembered.” (Unless these are extremely large envelopes, you’re not going to get a deceased person in there. Rewrite: Please place your donation in the envelope, along with the name of the deceased person you want remembered.)
As you can see, it only takes a few misplaced or missing words to render a sentence unintelligible or unintentionally humorous. And I want to point out that these mistakes are not limited to such newsletters; in fact, they’re not at all unusual, even among professional writers. Below are a few real headlines from real newspapers, compiled by the Columbia Journalism Review. As you can see, even the experts sometimes make mistakes:
New Housing for Elderly Not Yet Dead
N.J. Judge to Rule on Nude Beach
Reagan Wins on Budget, but More Lies Ahead
Police Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim
Lesson number three: Never underestimate the importance of a well-placed comma, a necessary hyphen, a vital preposition — and most of all, a thorough second look at your work. It does make a difference. (Note: The job search suddenly got a lot better for my sister and me once we fixed those pesky little errors.)
Causes Midge Raymond Supports
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Mercy Corps, Doctors without Borders, Coffee Kids, Northwest Harvest, Treehouse for Kids, Angeline's Day Shelter for...