Before hitting "send" when sending out a new piece or before hitting "publish" on a new blog post, it pays to proofread your piece. Here are some quick things to check when proofreading your own copy.
Perhaps one of the most common mistakes when when writing is misusing homophones–words that sound alike but are spelled differently. Spell check won't catch a misused word; it will only catch a misspelling. A quick read through can catch when your fingers said something other than what you intended.
Their, They're and There
Their coats are slumped on the floor. They're going to come back for them later–so please leave them there.
This one definitely makes into the all time top three homophones. Their is possessive, they're means they are–if you can't substitute this wordier version and still have it make sense, you probably have it wrong. There is a location, it's a place you can point to.
Your and You're (and Yore)
You're boring me with your tales of yore.
Yore is only appropriate if you're talking about some that happened long ago. Your is possessive and you're actually means you are–just like they're if you can't substitute the longer version and still have the sentence work, it's probably wrong.
Its and It's
The blanket is soft; its fleece texture means it's my favorite.
Many people get this one wrong because it's so counter intuitive. We learned in grade school that an apostrophe s makes something possessive. Not the case here. Its is possessive. It's is actually a conjunction meaning "it is."
To, Two and Too
Donna walked to the grocery store two blocks away. James went too.
To is a preposition; it indicates motion or direction toward a point or action. Two is the number (the sum of one plus one) and too means also or excessive amounts (too much or too tall).
(Want more common mistakes? Check out The Oatmeals really geeky but awesome poster, 10 Words You Need to Stop Misspelling.)
When It's a Style Thing
Maybe you know the differences between their and they're cold. But you've always wondered about that extra comma before the word "and," or you're baffled about whether that punctuation belongs inside or outside the quote or parentheses. Maybe you're confused about toward or towards... some of these things are style choices, and dependent upon your chosen publication (or blog's) style guide. Others are just plain wrong. So, which is which?
Toward or Towards
As long as you're on the American side of the big bathtub, drop the S. Ditto on backward. The Brits, it seems, like an extra letter with their crumpets and tea. In the U.S. we lost the S when Britain lost the revolution.
The Serial Comma
One of the comma's (many) uses is to separate items in a list. For example: On my trip to South Carolina in a few weeks I will bring my contacts, my keys, a chocolate bar, my tooth brush and enough clothes for five days. You'll notice here I did not use a comma after "tooth brush" and before "and." That extra comma is called the Serial Comma. Whether or not you use it is a style option.
Different style guides have it differently. The two style guides used most frequently, the AP Style Guide and the Chicago Manual of Style, each have the opposite guideline. The AP Style guide says nay, the Chicago Manuel of Style says yea (most journalistic writing uses the Chicago Style; personally, I prefer the AP Style, which is what I use at work). It doesn't actually matter which you choose, so long as you make sure to pick a style and stick to it.
It's worth noting, however, that even when you choose to use the serial comma, it's typically only used in lists of more than two things—so you wouldn't use it when saying Bob and Sue are coming over for tea" whereas you would for "I'm planning to offer black, green, and chai."
"Quotation Marks" and (Parentheses)
Punctuation marks (periods, commas, exclamation points, question marks, et al.) belong inside quote marks, please. This is one of my personal pet peeves. Like towards, conditional grammar belongs to the British. So when quoting that dry textbook in your final paper remember, "Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492."
When it comes to Parentheses, however, the case isn't as clear cut. When sourcing material, whether the punctuation goes inside or out depends on the style guide you're working from. When adding text with brackets [to] show something that's being taken out or added to a quote, you typically put punctuation on the outside. When in doubt, check your style guide.
When you edit your own work you move around paragraphs, take out sections and generally make a muck of it. But after you're done, the hope is the final piece reads smoother, clearly and—overall—better than it did before. However sometimes during that process you lose key elements. Be sure to check for these things before turning that polished final story in.
In press releases, articles or a book where you've done interviews, go through your piece and check to ensure that the first time you mention each of your sources you've attributed their quote to them with their full name and title. Double check the spelling of their names and the spelling of the company they work for, if you've mentioned it. Mistakes here can be embarrassing if they make it to print; the last thing you want to do is have to fess up to this kind of mistake after whatever you're working on hits the newsstands.
One of the sections of stories that time and time again I see as a weak spot in other people's writing is transitions. After you've finished a piece go back and read the last sentence of each paragraph followed by the first sentence of the next. They should flow smoothly. Also read the final paragraph in each section and the first paragraph of the next section; these, too, should flow from one to the next.
When copy and pasting quotes from your interview transcriptions, it's easy to miss a " and leave something open ended. I commonly catch this even in printed books that were likely proofread by several people before they made it to the final version. Go through and look for this.
The Final rule?
If you don't know it, look it up! These days a quick Google search will turn up the answer to almost any grammar question, leaving you with no excuse for a mistake.