Before You Proofread
- Be sure you've revised the larger aspects of the text. Don't make corrections at the sentence and word level [the act of editing] if you still need to work on the overall focus, development, and organization of the paper or you need to re-arrange or change specific sections [the act of revising].
- Set your paper aside between writing and proofreading. Give yourself a day or so between the writing of your paper and proofreading it. This will help you identify mistakes more easily. This is also a reason why you shouldn't wait until the last minute to draft your paper because it won't provide the time needed between writing and proofreading.
- Eliminate unnecessary words before looking for mistakes. Throughout your paper, you should try to avoid using inflated diction if a simpler phrase works equally well. Simple, precise language is easier to proofread than overly complex sentence constructions and vocabulary.
- Know what to look for. Make a mental note of the mistakes you need to watch for based on comments from your professor on previous drafts of the paper or that you have received about papers written in other classes. This will help you to identify repeated patterns of mistakes more readily.
- Review your list of references. Review the sources mentioned in your paper and make sure you have properly cited them in your bibliography. Also make sure that the titles cited in your bibliography are mentioned in the text. Any omissions should be resolved before you begin proofreading your paper.
NOTE: Do not confuse the act of revising your paper with the act of editing it. Editing is intended to tighten up language so that your paper is easier to read and understand. This should be the focus when you proofread. If your professor asks you to revise your paper, the implication is that there is something within the text that needs to be changed, improved, or re-organized in some significant way. If the reason for a revision is not specified, always ask for clarification.
Strategies to Help Identify Errors
- Work from a printout, not a computer screen. Besides sparing your eyes the strain of glaring at the computer, proofreading from a printout allows you to easily skip around to where errors might have been repeated throughout the paper [e.g., misspelled name of a person].
- Read out loud. This is especially helpful for spotting run-on sentences, but you'll also hear other problems that you may not have identified while reading the text out loud. This will also helps you play the role of the reader, thereby, encouraging you to understand the paper as your audience might.
- Use a ruler or blank sheet of paper to cover up the lines below the one you're reading. This technique keeps you from skipping over possible mistakes. This also helps you deliberately pace yourself as you read through your paper.
- Circle or highlight every punctuation mark in your paper. This forces you to pay attention to each mark you used and to question its purpose in each sentence or paragraph. This is a particularly helpful strategy if you tend to misuse or overuse a punctuation mark, such as a comma or semi-colon.
- Use the search function of the computer to find mistakes. Using the search [find] feature of your word processor can help you identify common errors faster. For example, if you overuse a phrase or use the same qualifier over and over again, you can do a search for those words or phrases and in each instance make a decision about whether to remove it or use a synonym.
- If you tend to make many mistakes, check separately for each kind of error, moving from the most to the least important, and following whatever technique works best for you to identify that kind of mistake. For instance, read through once [backwards, sentence by sentence] to check for fragments; read through again [forward] to be sure subjects and verbs agree, and again [perhaps using a computer search for "this," "it," and "they"] to trace pronouns to antecedents.
- End with using a computer spell checker or reading backwards word by word. Remember that a spell checker won't catch mistakes with homonyms [e.g., "they're," "their," "there"] or certain typos [like "he" when you meant to write "the"]. The spell-checker function is not a substitute for carefully reviewing the text for spelling errors.
- Leave yourself enough time. Since many errors are made and overlooked by speeding through writing and proofreading, setting aside the time to carefully review your writing will help you catch errors you might otherwise miss. Always read through your writing slowly. If you read through the paper at a normal speed, you won't give your eyes sufficient time to spot errors.
- Ask a friend to read your paper. Offer to proofread a friend's paper if they will review yours. Having another set of eyes look over your writing will often spot errors that you would have otherwise missed.
Individualize the Act of Proofreading
In addition to following the suggestions above, individualizing your proofreading process to match weaknesses in your writing will help you proofread more efficiently and effectively. For example, I still tend to make subject-verb agreement errors. Accept the fact that you likely won't be able to check for everything, so be introspective about what your typical problem areas are and look for each type of error individually. Here's how:
- Think about what errors you typically make. Review instructors' comments about your writing and/or set up an appointment review your paper with a staff member in the Writing Center.
- Learn how to fix those errors. Talk with your professor about helping you understand why you make the errors you do make so that you can learn how to avoid them.
- Use specific strategies. Develop strategies you are most comfortable with to find and correct your particular errors in usage, sentence structure, spelling, and punctuation.
- Where you proofread is important! Effective and efficient proofreading requires extended focus and concentration. If you are easily distracted by external activity or noise, proofread in a quiet corner of the library rather than at a table in Starbucks.
- Proofread in several short blocks of time. Avoid trying to proofread you entire paper all at once, otherwise, it will be difficult to maintain your concentration. A good strategy is to start your proofreading each time at the beginning of your paper. It will take longer to make corrections, but you'll be amazed at how many mistakes you find in text that you have already reviewed.
In general, verb tense should be in the following format, although variations can occur within the text depending on the narrative style of your paper. Note that references to prior research mentioned anywhere in your paper should always be stated in the past tense.
- Abstract--past tense [a summary description of what I did]
- Introduction--present tense [I am describing the study to you now]
- Literature Review--past tense [the studies you are reviewing have already been written]
- Methodology--past tense [the way that you gathered and synthesized data has already happened, otherwise, how could you write your paper?]
- Results--past tense [the findings have already been discovered]
- Discussion--present tense [I am talking to you now about how I interpreted the findings]
- Conclusion--present tense [I am summarizing the study for you now]
Cogie, Jane, Kim Strain, and Sharon Lorinskas. "Avoiding the Proofreading Trap: The Value of the Error Correction Process." The Writing Center Journal 19 (Spring/Summer 1999): 7-32; Editing and Proofreading. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Editing and Proofreading Strategies. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Harris, Jeanette. "Proofreading: A Reading/Writing Skill." College Composition and Communication 38 (December 1987): 464-466; Lunsford, Andrea A. and Robert Connors. The St. Martin's Handbook. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989; Madraso, Jan. "Proofreading: The Skill We've Neglected to Teach." The English Journal 82 (February 1993): 32-41; Proofreading. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Proofreading. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University; Proofreading and Revising. Online Writing Center, Walden University; Proofreading a College Paper: Guidelines and Checklist. Troy University Library Tutorial; Revision: Cultivating a Critical Eye. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; Revision Guidelines. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College; Where Do I Begin? The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Williams, Joseph M. and Lawrence McEnerney. Writing in College 3:A Strategy for Analyzing and Revising a First Draft. Writing Program, The University of Chicago.
A Quick Checklist for the Procrastination-Prone Student
It’s two o’clock in the morning.
For hours, you’ve been frantically writing a paper that is due tomorrow. By some sweet miracle, you’ve managed to stay away from Netflix long enough to finish writing the first draft of your paper.
You breathe a sigh of relief and prepare to crawl away from the perils of your desk toward the safety of your bed. But alas, you do not make it.
Instead, terror strikes your heart. You gasp and clutch your shaking hand to your sweaty chest, for you’ve just realized that the battle is not yet won. Though you’ve finished writing, you still face one more daunting task: you must proofread your paper.
How will you do it?
You open your web browser, and though it takes almost all the willpower you have left, you resist the urge to post a Facebook update about your progress (“Currently trading in my sanity for a degree in philosophy. On second thought, likely never had any sanity in the first place”). Instead, you go straight to Google and frantically start searching for proofreading tips that will allow you to get more than three hours of sleep tonight.
Search no more, my friend. Though they won’t replace a substantial edit by a pair of fresh eyes (nothing can), these proofreading tips should help you remove the most glaring errors from your paper. Finishing that home stretch while retaining your precious mental marbles just got a bit less stressful.
But first, a disclaimer: If you struggle with the rules of grammar and punctuation, even the handiest of proofreading tips may not help you polish your paper. Unfortunately, these tips will only be helpful if you’re familiar with the errors you seek. A short-turnaround proofreading service may be something to consider if you don’t have confidence in your own editing or proofreading abilities. With that in mind, here are some proofreading tips to try.
Consistency Proofreading Tips
Ask any editor, proofreader, or college professor what irks them most about student papers, and you’ll likely find that inconsistency takes the cake. No matter how you slice that chocolate torte, writing something five different ways in the same paper is just plain wrong. The best way to eliminate inconsistency, especially after a long night of writing, is to tackle each potential inconsistency error one by one.
1. Check Capitalization and Acronyms
Names, terms, titles, and headings should all be written the same way. To find inconsistencies, scan your document for every usage of a term, and make sure each instance is written the same way. Acronyms should also be used consistently. Each acronym should be defined the first time it is used, and it should replace the term it represents for every use thereafter.
2. Check Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes
It can be easy to mix up hyphens (-), en dashes (–), and em dashes (—). They look so similar! Check out this guide to using these pesky punctuation marks, then use Ctrl + F to search your document for each instance of hyphenation and dash usage. Pay special attention to hyphenated terms!
Click to enlarge.
3. Check Spelling
Check the language setting of your word processor. Is it set to U.S., U.K., Canadian, or Australian English? To make sure the language is consistent throughout, select the entire body of text in your document (which you can easily do by pressing Ctrl + A), and choose the correct variety of English. Though this should help you find inconsistencies in spelling, be aware that Word will not catch all spelling inconsistencies. For example, realize and realise are both accepted spellings for the same word in Microsoft Word’s U.K., Canadian, and Australian English dictionaries. The same goes for words like labor/labour and labeling/labelling. To avoid inconsistencies, search your document for both versions of words that may be spelled inconsistently.
For specialized terms that Word doesn’t recognize, after checking the spelling using an online dictionary, add the terms to your Word dictionary so that every instance of the correctly spelled word is recognized. That way, only words that are actually being spelled wrong will be labeled as such.
4. Check Formatting and Headings
Read each of your headings individually, and make sure they are all formatted consistently. Then check that the indentation and spacing are the same across all paragraphs. Remember that most style guides recommend using only one space after a period, not two.
Other Proofreading Tips
Consistency obviously isn’t the only worry when it comes to proofreading. Grammar and punctuation errors are usually lurking in student papers—especially those written in a rush. If your grasp of grammar is decent, you should be able to solve most of your own problems. The trick, of course, is finding those problems. Here are three proofreading tips for detecting the errors that your eyes habitually overlook.
5. Print Your Paper
Though this will not be a feasible option for long papers, like dissertations, it can be a useful tip for shorter documents. (You’re definitely not trying to proofread your dissertation at the last minute anyway, right?) Giving your eyes a break from screen time can help make them more aware of errors that they missed before.
6. Change the Appearance of Your Paper
If printing isn’t an option, consider doing something else to change the appearance of your paper. Copying the content into a different document without formatting is one option, as is temporarily changing the font size or style.
7. Read Your Paper out Loud
There are two potential downfalls to this technique. The first is that reading a paper aloud actually takes much more time than most students allot for such a task, and the second is that it can be difficult to focus long enough to read the entire paper. These are the very reasons why reading your paper out loud is a handy proofreading technique: doing this forces you to slow down. It also helps stop your brain from automatically skipping words.
8. Find a Study Buddy
While not technically a last-minute tip, exchanging papers with a study buddy can be very useful when it comes to ironing the kinks out of your final draft. Make friends with a classmate at the beginning of the semester, and then send your papers to each other for a quick read before submission. One more disclaimer: make sure your study buddy is an adept proofreader!
9. Give Up . . .
. . . On doing it yourself, that is. If you’re running out of time and still not feeling confident about your final draft, check out Scribendi.com’s short turnaround times for essay editing and proofreading. For important assignments, enlisting the help of an expert editor may be the best proofreading tip of all.
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