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Jan092015

Measure Twice, Cut Once

The old adage for carpentry, “measure twice, cut once,” admonishes us to double-check our work before doing something irrevocable.  Most of us don’t work with anything as substantial as wood, and our products are more likely to be memos, e-mails, or PowerPoint presentations rather than chairs or cabinets.  Thanks to computers, when you are writing a memo there is no real equivalent of a mistaken cut.  Back when typewriters were used to create business correspondence, a mistake would at best require the careful application of white-out, and at worst would require an entire page or more of a letter to be thrown out and typed again.  But with software, you can easily go back and correct any mistakes, and many programs will even fix spelling errors automatically.  (Of course, computers make possible a whole new category of mistakes – typewriters couldn’t accidentally delete an entire letter by mistake – but that’s another topic.)

But the advice “measure twice, cut once” still applies even when you are just working with words in a computer.  Despite the computer’s ability to quickly and easily make changes, there is still a point when you do something irrevocable with your memo, resume, or proposal: the point when you send it to your boss, potential employer, or client.  Once your audience has received your work, it is too late to correct any bad impression your mistakes create.  You can always follow-up with a corrected version, and if it is a contract or other legal document there is usually a chance to fix it before signing, but you’ve still made yourself look unprofessional.

 Double-check your work before sending it out

Part of double-checking your work is careful proof-reading for errors.  Careful proof-reading is especially important if you have created a document by using a boiler-plate or by cutting-and-pasting, since your mind might wander because you’ve read the same words many times before, and miss the fact that it uses the wrong pronoun or has the wrong name or something else inappropriate left-over from a previous version.  If possible, especially for the most important documents, have someone else bring a fresh eye to the proofreading.

Another aspect of double-checking is to consider how your audience is going to view the document.  Unless you are sending them physical pages you’ve proof-read yourself, they may very well be viewing the document with different software than you used to create it, and it may look very different.  If possible, try to recreate their experience as closely as possible, to make sure that these differences don’t introduce errors.

Usually, I like to illustrate my tips by giving success stories where my advice helped me or my clients.  But for this tip, when things go right it isn’t very memorable – no one remembers mistakes that didn’t happen.  It’s the times I and my clients didn’t double-check that continue to haunt us.  Like the client who cut and pasted a cover letter from a word processor document into an e-mail, not realizing that the copy included all the revisions he had made in the letter, which in his potential employer’s e-mail software showed up along with the final version.  Or the time I created an issue of this newsletter by cutting and pasting the new text into an old issue, but didn’t notice I hadn’t  updated the title.  Or another client who reused an old cover letter but failed to change the company’s name.  Or yet another client who created a resume with non-standard margins which when printed using the potential employer’s software messed up the page breaks.

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