How to Avoid Mistakes

For decades, I have been preaching to journalism students that the writer is the first copy editor.  Often, however, these days the writer is the only copy editor.

It shows.

Mistakes have plagued newspapers since the print-only days, and it seems to have gotten only worse with the multiplicity of online breaking news sites.

I hate mistakes.  Before we discuss that, here are some tips on how to avoid mistakes in articles.

1. Want to.

If you are one of those “future seasoned pros” who find such sentiments an OCD obsession, you probably make mistakes in copy and don’t care enough to realize it.

As for me, again, I hate mistakes.  I hate to make them, and I hate to read them.  If you find a mistake in this post, I won’t just shrug it off.  It will plague me.  If I find an avoidable mistake in your post, I will think less of you as a journalist.

If you don’t want to create error-free copy, you are more likely to make mistakes.  True, a stopped clock is right twice a day, but that leaves 1,438 bad calls on the correct time.

2. Check names

Nothing is so unnecessary as misspelling a name, especially today, where checking online is so easy.  I take off 25 points for a misspelled name, but I promise to restore the points if the student does not make a mistake on a name for the rest of the semester.

The student will promise, “I will double-check every name from now on!”  Um, that was the idea.

Auburn’s mayor has the last name of Ham.  At least once a semester, someone will spell it “Hamm” (though not as often now that Mia has retired).  He and everyone named in your articles deserve better.

3. Do the math

Journalists, in general, are terrible at math. My students tell me that if they were better at math, they would major in engineering and pull down the big bucks.

The math errors that crop up reinforce the stereotype.  In some cases, worse than embarrassing the journalist, it also lets sources get away with some shady calculating.

If you can’t do the math, learn.  Until you learn, get someone to help you.  But take control of every bit of information in whatever publishes under your name — including those annoying numbers.

4. How sure are you?

I play a game with my students.  I will hold a cup of whatever over a student’s head and ask a student about a difficult grammar or AP style question: who/whom? who/that? that/which? comma/no comma?  I tell the student that if the answer is wrong, I will turn the cup over.

The student typically blurts out an answer. “Are you sure?” I ask.  The student often confesses, “No!”  I ask, “Would you like to look it up?”  “Yes!”  Again, that’s the idea.

I don’t expect my students to be 100 percent sure of all style rules.  I am on most, but I’ve had almost 40 years of practice.  If you’re not sure, it takes just a few minutes to look it up.  Don’t just “blurt out” the answer to yourself.

As you look them up, make a list of your most common errors and keep it near when you write.  That will help you identify them and, through your own years of practice, make them second nature much more quickly.

Don’t flip a coin.  (And for heaven’s sake, don’t do it half the time one way and half the time the other.)

5. Read it out loud

Even on a deadline, take the time to read your article out loud, and listen to what you are reading.  A 500-word article takes maybe 3-4 minutes to read aloud, and it could save you some embarrassing errors, particularly in sentence structure.

The whole act of reading out loud slows your brain down by a few miles per hour, to a speed where you can see more than you would if you were merely scanning it.

Here are a couple more tips if you are not on a tight deadline:

6. Sleep on it

I recommend this for research papers as well as article projects.  Complete your rough draft the day before it is due, and give yourself one night’s sleep away from it.  When you give it a fresh look the next morning, you will catch things you did not see during the rough draft.

The idea of procrastinating until your deadline, and then throwing what you’ve got at some unfortunate editor, is one of those many cherished habits of youth that simply become annoying once you claim to be a professional.

7. Print it out and look at it

This works particularly well with longform articles: Before you read the article out loud, print it out and arrange the pages on a table, left to right.  Look at structure, sources. (Is one quoted noticeably more than others? Does a good source pop up at the end?)

One of my grad school professors, Donald Shaw, went so far as to literally cut and paste paragraphs, with scissors and tape, to move them around and create a long scroll of taped pages.  A bit old school, perhaps, but a good concept.

All of these tips are meaningless if you don’t care about what goes out under your byline. Above everything, care about putting out your best possible work.  It will produce work that will make you, your news organization and even your profession look better.