How Much Proofreading Is Too Much?

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Categories: Communication, Leadership

In March I introduced you to Sebastian, a highly competent, upwardly mobile executive who happens to be your boss. A very detailed person, Sebastian works from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

That post sparked quite a discussion and prompted some ideas for building a relationship with him. Now it's time to put these skills to use!

This time around, we're focusing on Sebastian's habit of proofreading. While it's a fact some people can see mistakes in documents that others just miss, his copious corrections are starting to cause issues.

Sebastian can and does act strategically. But his habit of correcting everything is causing the project managers and project management office staff in his division to spend an excessive amount of time focusing on the documents' presentation (style, font, grammar, spelling) to the detriment of the more important issues of content and strategy.

How do you advise him that his ability to see and correct minor errors might be counterproductive? And what is an acceptable standard for internal project documentation?  

Post your comments and ideas, and we'll review and consolidate the answers in a few weeks.
Posted by Lynda Bourne on: June 15, 2010 12:53 PM | Permalink

Comments (8)

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Victor Alonso Lion
Interesting question for those like me who work in the content industry (specifically in the translation/localization side of it): lots of proofreading issues everyday.

The most important thing to analyze is if the corrections are essential to the professional message that the documents want to transmit.

If we are talking about internal documentation, the most important factor is that the message is clear and the information is not confusing.

If we are talking about external documentation, it may be crucial that the message is clearly stated and that no mistakes are present.

In the situation described, it could be a good idea to check with an external (independent point of view) editor or professional writer whether Sebastian corrections are adding value to the documentation. If corrections are essential and valid, it might be a good idea to "hire" a reviewer for that defective documentation, maybe even train the internal stuff and enable them to focus on the essentials of Sebastian's corrections.

If corrections are not that essential and are mainly "correct" but still personal preferences, it is important for Sebastian to understand that not all these corrections are necessary. Since these situations are difficult to tackle, the most effective approach is to have someone Sebastian would trust (maybe that external reviewer) to review his corrections and make him consider which type of corrections he would agree to leave "uncorrected". - Víctor Alonso Lion

Glen B Alleman
First question from the point of view of a DoD proposal writer and DoD Program Manager - are these details germane to the outcomes of the project?

On the proposal side we may spend an entire day word-smithing a sentence in the executive summary introduction. What's the unit of measure of "minor"?

Mainak Pal
We would all agree that what Sebastian is doing is right, The only time most of the people come to face-to-face with the importance of this nitty gritty is when we look for archive material for our usage.

I work in a small organization and it becomes very important on my part to see to it that all the nitty gritty are handled by me and don't reach to my team, as most technical people always say that they would prefer working rather than spending time in documentation. I have explained to my boss that if there are any minor issues that need to be resolved, it would be more productive if we can get it done more casually rather than sending e-mails to and fro between people and wasting time on a small issue. I think it will depend on how much faith or leverage you have gained till now, from both Boss (Sebastian) and the people in your team.

This is a very interesting post and I have worked with this Sebastian type for long. Initially this type of proofreading and checking helped me improve my documentation standards but slowly I realized that what Sebastian wants is that we read his mind and write accordingly. Less than that is not acceptable.

Because of this I was beginning to lose confidence in my own thought process as well as presentation skills. Somehow I opted out of working for him and am happy and more productive in another dept.

Hence the best is that Sebastian understand how detrimental this type of behavior is to his team members. Perfection is not the aim of documentation. It is to get ideas across in a way that is understandable to the concerned audience.

I remember an example given during college. There were some ad folks creating an ad for a bigshot company. The CEO was constantly rejecting all the ideas and sending them back to the drawing board. One day one of the consultants took courage and told him "Sir, this ad is not for you. It is for your consumers." The ad went on to become a very popular one.

Its really proven that you need two sets of fresh eyes to check on your work to ensure if its too much or not. You can always have it checked professionally.

I think Sebastian is perfectionist. On my opinion, it should be balance between quality and cost. If you have lots of proofreading issues it increase the cost and this is not good.

Lennarth Anaya
It is not only a personal behavior, but also an organizational doubt: "When is it enough?"

I think that the key is when defining our quality goals. Even if you've achieved your quality goals and you still count on time and human resources, it's always better focusing on improving the quality of relevant or critical deliverables, than spending such resources on trivial tasks.

On the other hand, a misspelling is always wrong and causes a bad impression to our customers. Using the words of Victor Alonso: It is not a personal preference, so it should always be fixed, even if it was accidentally omitted in the quality goals.

I trust much more a mechanic that cared about delivering me a clean and faultless car, than a mechanic that only cared about delivering me a faultless car... but I would never trust a mechanic that delivered me a clean but faulty car.

I think we should establish such quality goals (trying to considering even the more trivial but time-consuming), and their pros and cons in the planning phase, so everybody would be confident on spending PLANNED TIME on reviewing and fixing trivial but important issues when executing project.

Sebastian is a perfectionist, obviously. Being a perfectionist is not bad, he's just saving his company from bad reputation. Lessen it a bit though if he dedicates too much time on it.

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