Why proofreading is so important

The following blog post is written by Laura Churchill, Senior Content Editor.

laura-churchill-1-002The Digital Publishing editorial team at ONS has a unique role in the organisation. We’re not statisticians and we’re not web developers, but no statistical release or article goes live on our websites without passing in front of our eyes. And we take proofreading extremely seriously.

How relevant is such a practice in the fast-paced world of digital publishing where mistakes can be rectified immediately? The answer is “very”.

You wouldn’t set off in your car without putting on your seatbelt and checking all around to ensure it’s safe to pull out. Even on a one-way street you would look both ways to make sure it’s fine for you to move on. Proofreading is the final stage of the publishing process, be it digital or not, which ensures that everything is present and correct and that your article is “safe” to be let out into the world. You won’t end up in hospital if you don’t proofread, but you might cause serious damage to your organisation’s reputation.

No self-respecting publishing organisation skips proofreading; a form of “second eyes” or 2i check is a standard procedure for any publishing model. We enforce strict quality standards for the statistics on our website and high editorial standards go hand-in-hand with that. We offer a service that makes it easier for our statisticians to get their job done.

On a daily basis our team of proofreaders are checking for grammar, spelling, punctuation, meaning and house style. We apply the “5Cs” test to a text, making sure it is consistent, clear, complete, correct and concise. What specifically do we look for?

It’s just a spellcheck, right?

You can’t replace a thorough proofread with a spellcheck. A spellchecker is limited in what it finds; it doesn’t know our house style and it certainly doesn’t understand statistics! And think of all those homonyms, homophones and homographs that a spellchecker won’t spot: adverse or averse, affect or effect, for example. Even a small error can upset a reader’s flow and cause them to skip a paragraph or leave our website altogether. Our reputation as “the UK’s largest independent producer of official statistics” is not a position to risk by making avoidable mistakes online. Seemingly “tiny” mistakes can have a massive impact. Don’t believe me? What about these 10 Very Costly Typos. Once live, an inaccuracy on our website can spread a long way in the social media world before we can correct it.

Checking for sense

What makes sense to you as an author might not be clear to our users. An important part of our proofread is ensuring that everything makes sense – to all readers, not just a chosen few – and the meaning has not gone astray somewhere along the way. The first of our Digital Publishing principles says that we “Always put our users first” and the Government Digital Service design principles are never far from our thoughts. This is not about “dumbing down”, it’s about making sure that all users can access our content. Users don’t stop understanding text because it’s written too simply, they stop understanding when it’s complex.

Ensuring consistency

Another vital element of our proofreading is to ensure consistency, which is crucial if we are to improve the user experience and maintain faith in our statistics. How many websites have you left because you’re not sure where you are on the site, can’t find what you’re looking for or even tell if you’re still on the same site? Content rarely lives in isolation and we need a consistent look, feel and tone across the site. Users need to be able to navigate easily without adapting to different styles all the time. Plain English and tone and voice have a big part to play in this – we check for complex sentence or paragraph structures that could be made more concise, complex words and acronyms that need defining and passive verbs that should be active.

House style is king

Our house style is constantly evolving. A style guide is no longer a dusty tome festering away on the shelves of editorial assistants across the land. Style.ONS is an evolving and changing tool and we proofreaders are in the engine room while that’s going on, making those decisions and feeding back to you. We are always coming across things we hadn’t thought about before, or adjusting our advice based on industry changes, your feedback and our team discussions (yes, we do have lengthy meetings about ampersands and commas … this is the stuff we love coming to work for).

Have we included everyone?

Ensuring our content is accessible is another critical part of the proofreading process. We’re looking for:

  • directional text
  • italic and bold
  • abbreviations
  • certain colour combinations
  • charts without a key or explanatory text
  • symbols, complex language and sentence structure
  • unclear link text
  • many other aspects that affect accessibility

If we don’t do this we discount a large proportion of the population. Around 11 million people in the UK currently have a long-term limiting illness or disability – that’s a lot of people to exclude.

So this is why we do what we do. If I haven’t made myself clear, we love proofreading and, to be honest, we find it hard to switch off (imagine how frustrated we get with shopfronts declaring they sell “Fish and Chip’s”). Our job is finding the mistakes so that nothing distracts from the data. It’s about always having the user in mind so that bulletins and articles reach the greatest number of people possible. It’s sweating the small stuff so you can focus on the bigger picture.

Please get in touch via email if you have any thoughts or comments.

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