Where Do I Begin?
Proofreading can be a difficult process, especially when you’re not sure where to start or what this process entails. Think of proofreading as a process of looking for any inconsistencies and grammatical errors as well as style and spelling issues. Below are a few general strategies that can help you get started.
- Before You Proofread
- When You Proofread
- After You Are Done
General Strategies Before You Proofread
- Make sure that you leave plenty of time after you have finished your paper to walk away for a day or two, a week, or even 20 minutes. This will allow you to approach proofreading with fresh eyes.
- Print out a hard copy. Reading from a computer screen is not the most effective way to proofread. Having a hardcopy of your paper and a pen will help you.
- Have a list of what to look for. This will help you manage your time and not feel overwhelmed by proofreading. You can get this list from previous assignments where your instructor(s) noted common errors you make.
General Strategies While You Proofread
- Don’t rush. Many mistakes in writing occur because we rush. Read slowly and carefully to give your eyes enough time to spot errors.
- Read aloud. Reading aloud helps you to notice run-on sentences, awkward transitions, and other grammatical and organization issues that you may not notice when reading silently. There are three ways you can read aloud:
- Read aloud to yourself. Reading a paper aloud encourages you to read each word and can help you notice small mistakes.
- Read aloud to a friend and have the friend give you oral feedback.
- Have a friend read your paper aloud while you don’t read along.
- Use the search in document function of the computer to look for common errors from your list.
- Read from the end. Read individual sentences one at a time starting from the end of the paper rather than the beginning. This forces you to pay attention to the sentence itself rather than to the ideas of the paper as a whole.
- Role-play. While reading, put yourself in your audience's shoes. Playing the role of the reader encourages you to see the paper as your audience might.
When You Are Done
- Have a friend look at your paper after you have made all the corrections you identified. A new reader will be able to help you catch mistakes that you might have overlooked.
- Make an appointment with a Writing Lab tutor if you have any further questions or want someone to teach you more about proofreading.
- Ask your teacher to look at the areas you usually have trouble with to see if you have made any progress.
Finding Common Errors
Proofreading can be much easier when you know what you are looking for. Although everyone will have different error patterns, the following are issues that come up for many writers. When proofreading your paper, be on the lookout for these errors. Always remember to make note of what errors you make frequently—this will help you proofread more efficiently in the future!
- Do NOT rely on your computer's spell-check—it will not get everything!
- Examine each word in the paper individually by reading carefully. Moving a pencil under each line of text helps you to see each word.
- If necessary, check a dictionary to see that each word is spelled correctly.
- Be especially careful of words that are typical spelling nightmares, like "ei/ie" words and homonyms like your/you're, to/too/two, and there/their/they're.
Left-out and doubled words
Reading the paper aloud (and slowly) can help you make sure you haven't missed or repeated any words.
- Make sure each sentence has a subject. In the following sentence, the subject is "students": The students looked at the OWL website.
- Make sure each sentence has a complete verb. In the following sentence, "were" is required to make a complete verb; "trying" alone would be incomplete: They were trying to improve their writing skills.
- See that each sentence has an independent clause; remember that a dependent clause cannot stand on its own. The following sentence is a dependent clause that would qualify as a fragment sentence: Which is why the students read all of the handouts carefully.
- Review each sentence to see whether it contains more than one independent clause.
- If there is more than one independent clause, check to make sure the clauses are separated by the appropriate punctuation.
- Sometimes, it is just as effective (or even more so) to simply break the sentence into separate sentences instead of including punctuation to separate the clauses.
- Look at the sentences that have commas.
- Check to see if the sentence contains two main clauses.
- If there are two main clauses, they should be connected with a comma and a conjunction like and, but, for, or, so, yet.
- Another option is to take out the comma and insert a semicolon instead.
- Find the subject of each sentence.
- Find the verb that goes with the subject.
- The subject and verb should match in number, meaning that if the subject is plural, the verb should be as well and vice versa.
Read through your sentences carefully to make sure that they do not start with one sentence structure and shift to another. A sentence that does this is called a mixed construction.
Look through your paper for series of items and make sure these items are in parallel form.
- Skim your paper, stopping at each pronoun.
- Search for the noun that the pronoun replaces.
- If you can't find any noun, insert one beforehand or change the pronoun to a noun.
- If you can find a noun, be sure it agrees in number and person with your pronoun.
- Skim your paper, stopping only at those words which end in "s." If the "s" is used to indicate possession, there should be an apostrophe, as in Mary's book.
- Look over the contractions, like you're for you are, it's for it is, etc. Each of these should include an apostrophe.
- Remember that apostrophes are not used to make words plural. When making a word plural, only an "s" is added, not an apostrophe and an "s."
Suggestions for Proofreading Your Paper
One of the most difficult parts of the writing process is proofreading. It is easy for us to see what we want to see, not necessarily what our readers will see. These suggestions should help you take a step back and view your writing more objectively.
Suggestions for Editing (Proofreading) your Paper
Read your Paper Aloud
Any time your text is awkward or confusing, or any time you have to pause or reread your text, revise this section. If it is at all awkward for you, you can bet it will be awkward for your reader.
Examine your Paragraphs
Examine the overall construction of your paragraphs, looking specifically at length, supporting sentence(s), and topic sentence. Individual paragraphs that are significantly lacking length or sufficient supporting information as well as those missing a topic sentence may be a sign of a premature or under-developed thought.
Track Frequent Errors
Keep track of errors that you make frequently. Ask your teacher or visit the Writing Lab for assistance in eliminating these errors.
Revising for Cohesion
This material (adapted from Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams) will help students revise sentences for cohesion.
- Begin sentences with short, simple words and phrases that (a) communicate information that appeared in previous sentences, or (b) build on knowledge that you share with your reader.
- In a paragraph, keep your topics short and reasonably consistent.
Exercise: Diagnosis, Analysis, Revision
- Underline the first few words of every sentence in a paragraph, ignoring short introductory phrases such as "In the beginning," or "For the most part."
- If you can, underline the first few words of every clause.
- Read your underlined words. Is there a consistent series of related topics?
- Will your reader see these connections among the topics?
- Decide what you will focus on in each paragraph.
- Imagine that the passage has a title. The words in the title should identify what should be the topics of most of the sentences.
- In most sentences, make the topics the subject of verbs.
- Put most of the subjects at the beginning of your sentences. Avoid hiding your topic by opening sentences with long introductory clauses or phrases.
Topics are crucial for readers because readers depend on topics to focus their attention on particular ideas toward the beginning of sentences. Topics tell readers what a whole passage is "about." If readers feel that a sequence of topics is coherent, then they will feel they are moving through a paragraph from a cumulatively coherent point of view. But if throughout the paragraph readers feel that its topics shift randomly, then they have to begin each sentence out of context, from no coherent point of view. When that happens, readers feel dislocated, disoriented, and out of focus.
Questions to ask yourself as you revise
Do your sentences "hang together"?
- Readers must feel that they move easily from one sentence to the next, that each sentence "coheres" with the one before and after it.
- Readers must feel that sentences in a paragraph are not just individually clear, but are unified with each other.
Does the sentence begin with information familiar to the reader?
Does the sentence end with interesting information the reader would not anticipate?
Will your reader be able to identify quickly the "topic" of each paragraph?
Note: it is easier to see coherence and clarity in other people's writing. Why? Because by the time we reach a final draft, everything we write seems old to us. Improving on this takes practice.
Steps for Revising Your Paper
When you have plenty of time to revise, use the time to work on your paper and to take breaks from writing. If you can forget about your draft for a day or two, you may return to it with a fresh outlook. During the revising process, put your writing aside at least twice—once during the first part of the process, when you are reorganizing your work, and once during the second part, when you are polishing and paying attention to details.
Use the following questions to evaluate your drafts. You can use your responses to revise your papers by reorganizing them to make your best points stand out, by adding needed information, by eliminating irrelevant information, and by clarifying sections or sentences.
Find your main point.
What are you trying to say in the paper? In other words, try to summarize your thesis, or main point, and the evidence you are using to support that point. Try to imagine that this paper belongs to someone else. Does the paper have a clear thesis? Do you know what the paper is going to be about?
Identify your readers and your purpose.
What are you trying to do in the paper? In other words, are you trying to argue with the reading, to analyze the reading, to evaluate the reading, to apply the reading to another situation, or to accomplish another goal?
Evaluate your evidence.
Does the body of your paper support your thesis? Do you offer enough evidence to support your claim? If you are using quotations from the text as evidence, did you cite them properly?
Save only the good pieces.
Do all of the ideas relate back to the thesis? Is there anything that doesn't seem to fit? If so, you either need to change your thesis to reflect the idea or cut the idea.
Tighten and clean up your language.
Do all of the ideas in the paper make sense? Are there unclear or confusing ideas or sentences? Read your paper out loud and listen for awkward pauses and unclear ideas. Cut out extra words, vagueness, and misused words.
Eliminate mistakes in grammar and usage.
Do you see any problems with grammar, punctuation, or spelling? If you think something is wrong, you should make a note of it, even if you don't know how to fix it. You can always talk to a Writing Lab tutor about how to correct errors.
Switch from writer-centered to reader-centered.
Try to detach yourself from what you've written; pretend that you are reviewing someone else's work. What would you say is the most successful part of your paper? Why? How could this part be made even better? What would you say is the least successful part of your paper? Why? How could this part be improved?