Whether you’re writing a novel, a thesis, a business report, a résumé, or a covering letter for a job application, having a good command of English is a must if you want to make a positive first impression.
Errors that most often leap out include:
- spelling mistakes;
- grammar errors;
- punctuation errors;
- inconsistencies in hyphenation, capitalization and style; and
- poor formatting.
In addition to using an experienced copy-editor or proofreader, you might consider the following resources to help you deal with these problems. Some are free; others will necessitate a small financial outlay. For brevity, I’ve chosen to prioritize my personal favourites.
PerfectIt (Intelligent Editing)
Inconsistency is something that niggles many readers. My top software solution is PerfectIt. This smart program searches Word documents and finds inconsistencies with regards to hyphenation, capitalization, spelling style (e.g. organize vs organise), heading styles, and format of numbers and abbreviations. It works with either US or UK English and allows you to enforce your own custom style when required. The website includes a free trial download, plenty of information about PerfectIt’s key features, useful demonstration videos, and a user forum. You’ll also find a free online consistency checker that will come in handy for smaller documents. If you decide to go for the full program, prices start at $59 for the single-licence Standard edition.
The Penguin Guide to Punctuation (R.L. Trask)
This is my all-time favourite punctuation book. The author has succeeded in producing an easy-to-read guide that comes in at just over 160 pages (including the index). The book covers correct usage of commas, full points, question marks, exclamation marks, colons, semi-colons, apostrophes, quotation marks, and a lot more besides. Each section clearly explains the use of the punctuation mark, and numerous examples of both correct and incorrect usage. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve recommended this to friends and colleagues. If you struggle with punctuation and only buy one book this year, this is the one to go for. And it’s a snip at only £5.99 from Amazon.
English Grammar for Dummies (Lesley J. Ward and Geraldine Woods)
This is an enjoyable read that covers both the basics and the more complex elements of English grammar. The book is written in a very light-hearted style to make it accessible to a wide range of readers, and there are plenty of examples given to illustrate the lessons. There’s now a Kindle version, too, so if you’re short of shelf space this could be for you. Prices on Amazon start at £7.60. I have a number of grammar books and I chose to write about this because it’s the one that I’ve found to be most accessible. Like any book of its type, it does require careful reading.
Oxford Dictionaries Online
Every writer needs a good dictionary. And here’s one that’s free and available from your PC: Oxford Dictionaries Online. The wonderful thing about this site is that it’s so much more than a dictionary. Also included are resources such as “For Learners of English” and “Better Writing”. The latter includes advice on punctuation, spelling, grammar, common errors and practical writing. The Pro version of the site includes access to further resources for writers including the online editions of New Hart’s Rules, Pocket Fowler’s and a comprehensive thesaurus. For more detailed information about what’s on offer with a Pro subscription, click here. As for what it will cost you, if you’re a member of an English library you can access Pro for free by logging in with your library card number. If this isn’t an option, personal subscriptions start at £13 a month for three months, or £42 a year, plus VAT.
Resources for Word Users (Liz Broomfield)
Microsoft Word is one of the most powerful pieces of software available for writers. If you do most of your writing in Word, but you’re not yet taking advantage of all of the available shortcuts and functions, do yourself a favour and take a look at Liz Broomfield’s blog-based Resources for Word Users. Auto-correct, styles, case toggling, tabs, formatting margins, setting up numbered headings, and word counting are just some of the tips and tricks included. This is a gem of a site that I highly recommend. And it won’t cost you a bean.
Grammar Bites (Publishing Training Centre)
Another free resource, the PTC’s Grammar Bites blog is full of lovely little nuggets of information on the correct usage of various elements of the English language. Recent posts include explanations of “tricky” verbs, homonyms and homophones, common trip-ups (e.g. who vs whom), and correct use of punctuation (e.g. colons, semi-colons and apostrophes). New “bites” are posted regularly so this is definitely a site worth bookmarking.
Online Style Guide Links
If you’re writing a report, dissertation or thesis, you might be required to follow a particular style. Ignore this at your peril – examiners may penalize you if you don’t follow the brief. Ask your institution for guidance on which style should be used. For a list of links to free online style guides from the likes of the Economist, APA, WHO, Chicago, and many more, click here.