Jul 22, 2013 | Better Writing

Years ago, when I was working as the Business Manager and Development Director for a seminary, I drafted a letter that I thought contained a sentence about how those with special gifts could “use those in the service of the church.”

A couple of months later I opened a copy of our denominational magazine to find my letter quoted in the humor column. That’s never a good thing. There was the actual sentence that had gone out to our entire mailing list and now provided a laugh for millions of readers. I had actually asked readers to “sue those in the service of the church.”

I felt betrayed. “Sure,” I thought, “I missed the error. But I had other people read the letter and they didn’t catch it!”

I was feeling pretty grouchy until my assistant came in with a huge smile on her face and a copy of the denominational magazine in her hand. She had underlined the part about “sued.”  “Wow,” she said, “I bet we’ll all remember that letter!” That lightened the mood, but not the lesson.

If you’re the author, of a letter or a blog post or a book, you’re the one responsible for typos and misspellings and grammatical errors. They reflect on you, not the typist or the editor or anyone who read your writing. You can’t depend on anyone else to catch your mistakes. You can’t depend on technology either.

The spell and grammar checking features in your software can be a big help. You can use the reading ease statistics to help improve your writing. And grammar and spell checks will catch a lot of your mistakes. But they won’t catch all of them.

My spell checker would not have caught my “sue” mistake. It was a valid word, spelled correctly, and it fit into the sentence. But it didn’t make sense in the larger context of the piece. No program would catch that. Only a human being can perceive context.

Don’t trust your spell checker completely. Read your work aloud. Get other people to help review it. Give it a rest between reviews. You’ll never eliminate mistakes, but you can minimize them, and stay out of the humor column.