Smart writers submit perfect copy because it allows them to maintain some control over their work after they turn it in. In the previous century, writers could depend on copy editors, proofreaders, and fact checkers to back them up, but all three groups either vanished or became so overburdened that we have lost much of our safety net. Some book publishers no longer copyedit manuscripts, and even The New York Times, formerly the bastion of accuracy, has slipped.
Readers perceive flawless prose as a mark of authority. When they spot errors, such as a misspelled name, they start doubting the information and the author. Writers who take responsibility for their own typescripts end up publishing fewer errors. So how do you achieve perfect copy?
Every word must be spelled right, especially names. Spell checkers catch things hard to see on a screen, like two words run together without a space between them. But they do only a rough job of catching misspelled words. Spell-checker software compares the words in the text with words in its vocabulary. If it finds the word in its list, it declares it spelled right; if not, it highlights it. Unfortunately, this software doesn’t allow for words that sound alike, so it will endorse this sentence: Their hiss know weigh two sea you’re feat. (There is no way to see your feet.) Don’t trust, and do verify.
Reading aloud makes most spelling errors jump out at you, because you have to read every word. Dedicated writers who spell poorly should correct that deficiency, by mastering a book on spelling, reading good fiction, and using devices like word-a-day calendars.
Some software will check grammar and usage, but only in crude ways. I told my word-processor to check this sentence, “Writing are fun.” No problem, it said. Again, you can best learn grammar and usage by handbooks and reading good prose.
How do you check names? My name is spelled simply: “Don Fry.” Half the writers who mention me in print spell my last name with an –e, “Frye.” They make that error by assuming. You get names right by careful gathering in the first place. You ask everybody you talk with for a business card; then you ask them if everything on the card is correct. Half the time, it isn’t, usually titles and email addresses. You ask people to spell their names, even Mary Smith, who replies, “M-E-R-R-Y S-M-Y-T-H-E.”
In final proofreading, you might check names with a phone directory, or Google. If you use the same name more than once in the same piece, compare them for consistency. If in doubt, call people up or send them an email query. You might feel stupid, but the person will admire your persistent accuracy. Finally, if you can, check names in photo captions, on maps and diagrams, and in back-of-the-book lists.
Numbers are harder to check, but you can mislead readers with just one too many zeros or a misplaced decimal point. Check them against the best sources, beyond the person you got it from. Do not trust previously published sources, such as newspaper clip files. Assume that numbers are wrong until verified. To check a phone number, call it.
Many publications have “Stylebooks,” sets of rules, mostly having to do with format. Baseball players observe the rules of their game, and you should follow the rules of our game. Perfect copy honors those templates; otherwise copy editors start changing things. If you must violate the Stylebook, add a note explaining why.
Fact checking goes beyond verifying things from your notes. Use directories, Google, and phone calls. When I write very tricky technical things, I often call the source and ask if I got it right. By the way, they usually tell me some new things I didn’t know.
The most careful writer I know, Bill Adair, is the most thorough checker I know. He prints a copy of his finished piece, and then reads it with a red pen in hand. He asks if each fact is correct and each name is spelled correctly, and marks a check if it is. He will often check the spelling of names he has written dozens of times, just to be sure. Borderline overkill, but Bill has rarely printed corrections. (By the way, I sent him this paragraph to confirm it. He did, whew.)