As a former policy professional, I can appreciate more than most why proofreading a long report yourself might not always be top of your to-do list when there are several competing demands on your time. However, I learned early on in my career that it is, in fact, time very well spent and it became a lesson I passed on to others at every possible opportunity.
Good writing is important in lots of fields, but especially in influencing public policy. You might be a civil servant or a member of a political party, or you might be working for a lobbying group, business organisation, NGO or charity. Whatever your area of work, your words have the potential to influence the decisions taken by lawmakers at the national and international level, and their persuasive power (or lack of it) could have real-world consequences for millions of people.
When you’re dealing with difficult issues relating to privacy, international trade, fighting crime or the intricacies of tax law, why should you also be thinking about spelling, grammar and punctuation?
Getting your message across
If you’ve ever witnessed an argument online, you’ll know the distraction power of typos (or, even worse, factual errors). Regardless of how good someone’s argument is, flaws in the way it’s presented will always be picked up on and attacked by their opponents. After all, it’s easier to criticise someone’s spelling, punctuation and grammar than it is to counter a good argument. Why give your opponents the opportunity?
The lawmakers you’re trying to influence are likely to be reading tens of documents just like yours at the end of a long day. Every mistake is a distraction that takes their attention away from the point you are trying to make. In an industry where your ability to make persuasive arguments is key, undermining your point with a catalogue of errors (however tiny) can be seriously harmful. It might even mean your paper stays at the bottom of the pile.
Building trust and credibility
Imagine for a moment that you are the lawmaker on the receiving end of your policy paper. They know that most of the decisions they make will have pros and cons and may be well received by one set of stakeholders but risk upsetting another. They also know that they will likely be called upon to justify their decision; to those stakeholders, to their colleagues, and perhaps even to Parliament. The arguments you set out in your policy paper might just be the ones they have to rely on.
Knowing that they can trust you, and the information you provide, is hugely important. When they face tough questions later, they want to know that they can be confident about their answer.
It would be difficult in their position to overlook repeated errors in your document. If you haven’t checked this document for typos, how do they know whether you’ve checked the sources of your information? If you use the wrong acronym and don’t notice, how do they know whether it’s because you were simply in a hurry, or because you don’t know enough about the area?
Tailoring your work to your audience
It goes without saying that you should avoid jargon and use plain English in reports or publications that are intended for a wide audience, but you should consider doing the same when you pitch a paper to lawmakers. While you likely know your subject inside out, the person you’re trying to influence will probably have several areas of responsibility and won’t necessarily have the same grasp of the details as you do.
Sometimes being the expert can actually make it more difficult to spot problems. You might be using an acronym or abbreviation throughout your paper without explaining its meaning. In your area of work, perhaps it’s just common knowledge, but it’s possible that it’s not one your audience has come across. Or perhaps it could easily be confused with another project for which they also have responsibility?
What can a proofreader do for you?
You might consider that a few typos or potential misunderstandings are fairly normal in a long, complicated piece of work, but every single one can have a real impact on your message. Don’t let small mistakes undermine your hard work.
A professional proofreader can help perfect your paper, report, website copy or any other text for publication, and ensure that it gets the message across exactly as you intended it to.