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Organizing Academic Research Papers: 10. Proofreading Your Paper

Definition

Proofreading is the act of searching for errors before you hand in the your final research paper. Errors can be both grammatical and typographical in nature, but proofreading can also be used to identify problems with the flow of your paper [i.e., the logical sequence of thoughts and ideas] and to find any word processing errors [e.g., different font types, indented paragraphs, line spacing, etc.].

Strategies for Proofreading your Paper

Before You Proofread

  • Be sure you've revised the larger aspects of your text. Don't make corrections at the sentence and word level if you still need to work on the overall focus, development, and arrangement of the paper, of sections in the paper, or of individual paragraphs.
  • Set your text aside for a while between writing and proofreading. Establishing some distance between the writing your paper and proofreading it will help you identify mistakes more easily.
  • 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, more precise language is easier to proofread than overly complex sentence construction and vocabulary.
  • Know what to look for. Make a list of mistakes you need to watch for based upon the comments of your professors on previous drafts of your paper or for papers written in other classes. This will help you to identify repeated patterns of mistakes more readily.

To help ensure that you identify all the errors in your paper, consider the following:

  1. Work from a printout, not a computer screen. Besides sparing your eyes the strain of glaring at a computer screen, proofreading from a printout allows you to easily skip around to where errors might have been repeated throughout the paper.
  2. Read out loud. This is especially helpful for spotting run-on sentences, but you'll also hear other problems that you may not have picked up while reading silently. Reading your paper out loud also helps you play the role of the reader, thereby encouraging you to understand the paper as your audience might.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 particularly helpful strategy if you tend to misuse or overuse a punctuation mark, such as a comma or semi-colon.
  5. Use the search function of the computer to find mistakes you're likely to make. Using the search [find] feature of your word processor can help youidentify 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 keep it or not or use a synonym.
  6. 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.
  7. End with using a computer spell checker or reading backwards word by word. But 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"].
  8. Leave yourself enough time. Since many errors are made and overlooked by speeding through writing and proofreading, taking the time to carefully look over 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.
  9. 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 review your paper with a tutor.
  • 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 ways to avoid them.
  • Use specific strategies. Develop strategies you are most comfortable with to find and correct your particular errors in usage, sentence structure, and spelling and punctuation.
  • Where you proofread is important! Effective and efficient proofreading requires extended focus and concentration. If you are easily distracted by external noise, proofread in a quiet corner of the library rather than in a coffee shop.
  • 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 you've already reviewed.

Editing and Proofreading. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Editing and Proofreading Strategies. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Proofreading. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Proofreading. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University; 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.