Computers are dumb. You’re smart. And in the frenzy of writing, it’s easy to make dumb human errors. So before hitting send, publish, or print, use your eyes, those of a friend, or your trusty neighbourhood editor to catch some common errors that can stop a reader dead in their tracks and derail your message.
Although it may flag the eternal their/there/they’re to help you with this common usage error, your spellchecker might not rescue you from embarrassing spelling goofs like “asses” (for “assess”) or pubic (for “public”).
Dangling modifiers may also lurk in your draft. A modifier is a word or phrase that describes (or modifies) a noun in your sentence, and should be placed as near to what it describes as possible. When the modifier is placed next to the wrong noun, the result can be unintentionally hilarious. For example, a letter to subscribers of a newspaper opened with the following: “As Canada’s leading national newspaper, you …” (I’m a newspaper?). Another example is this one my friend found in a textbook she was editing: “After he was assassinated, Khan went on to lead for 12 more years …” (all hail the zombie ruler Khan!). Fixing these requires some rewriting. (I think perhaps every editor keeps a list of funny dangling modifiers. Nerdy but true.)
Finally, look for common punctuation errors like apostrophes. Even normal, non-punctuation-obsessed people notice when an apostrophe stuck in the plural form of a word for no good reason. (Although perhaps the reason is decorative?) Some may even pick up on the subtle difference between it’s (contraction for “it is”) and its (possessive) or let’s (contraction for “let us”) and lets (verb). I wouldn’t want you to end up on the Apostrophe Abuse blog.
If you only have a little time to edit, focus on the big issues – spelling (it counts!), usage (using a given spelling of a word correctly), and sentence structure. A great resource for learning how to edit your own work remains The Elements of Style, the classic Strunk edition of which can be found online, or in a slim little volume at any decent bookstore.