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
Here are some common proofreading issues that come up for many writers. For grammatical or spelling errors, try underlining or highlighting words that often trip you up. On a sentence level, take note of which errors you make frequently. Also make note of common sentence errors you have such as run-on sentences, comma splices, or sentence fragments—this will help you proofread more efficiently in the future.
- Do not solely rely on your computer's spell-check—it will not get everything!
- Trace a pencil carefully under each line of text to see words individually.
- Be especially careful of words that have tricky letter combinations, like "ei/ie.”
- Take special care of homonyms like your/you're, to/too/two, and there/their/they're, as spell check will not recognize these as errors.
Left-out and doubled words
Read the paper slowly aloud to make sure you haven't missed or repeated any words. Also, try reading your paper one sentence at a time in reverse—this will enable you to focus on the individual sentences.
Sentence fragments are sections of a sentence that are not grammatically whole sentences. For example, “Ate a sandwich” is a sentence fragment because it lacks a subject.
Make sure each sentence has a subject:
- “Looked at the OWL website.” is a sentence fragment without a subject.
- “The students looked at the OWL website.” Adding the subject is “students” makes it a complete sentence.
Make sure each sentence has a complete verb.
- “They trying to improve their writing skills.” is an incomplete sentence because “trying” is an incomplete verb.
- “They were trying to improve their writing skills.” In this sentence, “were” is necessary to make “trying” a complete verb.
See that each sentence has an independent clause. Remember that a dependent clause cannot stand on its own. In the following examples, green highlighting indicates dependent clauses while yellow indicates independent clauses.
- “Which is why the students read all of the handouts carefully.” This is a dependent clause that needs an independent clause. As of right now, it is a sentence fragment.
- “Students knew they were going to be tested on the handouts, which is why they read all of the handouts carefully.” The first part of the sentence, “Students knew they were going to be tested,” is an independent clause. Pairing it with a dependent clause makes this example a complete sentence.
- 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 two separate sentences instead of including punctuation to separate the clauses.
- Run on: “I have to write a research paper for my class about extreme sports all I know about the subject is that I'm interested in it.” These are two independent clauses without any punctuation or conjunctions separating the two.
- Edited version: I have to write a research paper for my class about extreme sports, and all I know about the subject is that I'm interested in it. The two highlighted portions are independent clauses. They are connected by the appropriate conjunction “and” and a comma.
- Another edited version: “I have to write a research paper for my class about extreme sports. All I know about the subject is that I'm interested in it.” In this case, these two independent clauses are separated into individual sentences separated by a period and capitalization.
- Look closely at sentences that have commas.
- See if the sentence contains two independent clauses. Independent clauses are complete sentences.
- If there are two independent clauses, they should be connected with a comma and a conjunction (and, but, for, or, so, yet, nor). Commas are not needed for some subordinating conjunctions (because, for, since, while, etc.) because these conjunctions are used to combine dependent and independent clauses.
- Another option is to take out the comma and insert a semicolon instead.
- Comma Splice: “I would like to write my paper about basketball, it's a topic I can talk about at length.” The highlighted portions are independent clauses. A comma alone is not enough to connect them.
- Edited version: “I would like to write my paper about basketball because it's a topic I can talk about at length.” Here, the yellow highlighted portion is an independent clause while the green highlighted portion is a dependent clause. The subordinating conjunction “because” connects these two clauses.
- Edited version, using a semicolon: “I would like to write my paper about basketball; it’s a topic I can talk about at length.” Here, a semicolon connects two similar independent clauses.
- 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.
- An easy way to do this is to underline all subjects. Then, circle or highlight the verbs one at a time and see if they match.
- Incorrect subject verb agreement: “Students at the university level usually is very busy.” Here, the subject “students” is plural, and the verb “is” is singular, so they don’t match.
- Edited version: “Students at the university level usually are very busy.” “Are” is a plural verb that matches the plural noun, “students.”
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.
- “Since I have a lot of work to do is why I can't go out tonight.” Both green highlighted sections of the sentence are dependent clauses. An independent and dependent clause make a complete sentence.
- Edited version: “Since I have a lot of work to do, I can't go out tonight.” The green highlighted portion is a dependent clause while the yellow is an independent clause. Thus, this example is a complete sentence.
Look through your paper for series of items, usually separated by commas. Also, make sure these items are in parallel form, meaning they all use a similar form.
- Example: “Being a good friend involves listening skills, to be considerate, and that you know how to have fun.” In this example, “listening” is in present tense, “to be” is in the infinitive form, and “that you know how to have fun” is a sentence fragment. These items in the series do not match up.
- Edited version: “Being a good friend involves listening, being considerate, and having fun.” In this example, “listening,” “being,” and “having” are all in the present continuous (-ing endings) tense. They are in parallel form.
- Skim your paper, searching for pronouns.
- Search for the noun that the pronoun replaces.
- If you can't find any nouns, 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.
- “Sam had three waffles for breakfast. He wasn’t hungry again until lunch.” Here, it is clear that Sam is the “he” referred to in the second sentence. Thus the singular third person pronoun, “he” matches with Sam.
- “Teresa and Ariel walked the dog. The dog bit her.” In this case, it is unclear who the dog bit because the pronoun, “her,” could refer to either Teresa or Ariel.
- “Teresa and Ariel walked the dog. Later, it bit them.” Here, the third person plural pronoun, “them,” matches the nouns that precede it. It’s clear that the dog bit both people.
- “Teresa and Ariel walked the dog. Teresa unhooked the leash, and the dog bit her.” In these sentences, it is assumed that Teresa is the “her” in the second sentence because her name directly precedes the singular pronoun, “her.”
- 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."
- “It’s a good day for a walk.” This sentence is correct because “it’s” can be replaced with “it is.”
- “A bird nests on that tree. See its eggs?” In this case, “its” is a pronoun describing the noun, “bird.” Because it is a pronoun, no apostrophe is needed.
- “Classes are cancelled today” is a correct sentence whereas “Class’s are cancelled today” is incorrect because the plural form of class simply adds an “-es” to the end of the word.
- “Sandra’s markers don’t work.” Here, Sandra needs an apostrophe because the noun is a possessive one. The apostrophe tells the reader that Sandra owns the markers.
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
Writing a cohesive paper takes time and revision. This resource will focus primarily on topic sentences that begin each paragraph and on topics, or main points, within a paragraph. This resource will also enable students to look closely at their sentences and see how each sentence relates to another within a paragraph. This material is adapted from Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams.
- Begin sentences with short, simple words and phrases.
- These phrases should communicate information that appeared in previous sentences, or build on knowledge that you share with your reader.
- Within a paragraph, keep your topics, or main points, direct and reasonably consistent.
Tip: Create a list of words to draw from that intuitively tells the reader what to focus on. If your words progress from “investigate, remedy, resolve” or “negate, discover, re-invent” the reader should be able to follow the line of action and they will feel like your ideas cohere.
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. (Remember that a clause has a subject and verb)
- Read your underlined words. Is there a consistent set of related topics?
- Will your reader see these connections among the topics?
- Imagine that the passage has a title. The words in the title should identify what should be the topics of most of the sentences.
- Decide what you will focus on in each paragraph.
- In most sentences, make your topics subjects that do the action in the sentences.
- Move your topics to the beginning of your sentences. Avoid hiding your topic behind long introductory phrases or clauses.
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.
Analysis of the Sample Passage:
1. Read your underlined words. Is there a consistent set of related topics?
Here are some significant words from the clauses that are underlined in the above example: topics, readers, topics, readers, they, readers, they, readers. Do these words help guide your reader along?
2. Will your reader see these connections among the topics?
Utilize repetition and patterns of progression. What this sample passage does really well is that it works with repetition. It also has a pattern of progression: in the first sentence, the phrase, “topics are crucial” is used and then the writer explains how topics are crucial in the rest of this sentence and the next. In terms of repetition, the phrase “readers feel that” is used twice. The third time it is used, there’s a variation to the pattern. This variation is direct, concise, and surprising: “Readers feel dislocated,” begins this clause.
3. Imagine that the passage has a title. The words in the title should identify what should be the topics of most of the sentences.
Sample Title: “How Topics Coherently Guide the Reader” Do the themes in the above passage match with this title?
4. Decide what you will focus on in each paragraph.
Think about the importance of your topics and what happens to the paragraph if these topics are not utilized. In the sample passage, the highlighted phrase seems out of place. Consider this revision:
Topics are crucial for readers. Topics tell readers what a whole passage is "about." Readers depend on topics to focus their attention on particular ideas toward the beginning of sentences. 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.
In this revision, the phrase “what a passage is ‘about,’” comes before “Readers depend…” This coheres better than the initial draft because the writer sets the reader up for a definition, or in-depth explanation of what the word “about”’ means.
Questions to ask yourself as you revise
On a sentence level:
1. Do your sentences "hang together"? Readers must feel that sentences in a paragraph are not just individually clear, but are unified with each other. Readers should be able to move easily from one sentence to the next, feeling that each sentence "coheres" with the one before and after it.
One way of thinking about this is as if you are giving your readers sign posts or clues they can follow throughout your passage. These will act as signals that guide the reader into your argument.
2. Does the sentence begin with information that’s familiar to the reader? Readers will be familiar with your information if it has already been touched upon in the previous sentence.
It’s important to address how readers feel about unfamiliar information. As a writer, we sometimes forget that readers have different assumptions, values and beliefs than we do. Their bodies of knowledge are not the same as ours. Thus, it’s important to clearly build your progression of thought or argument in a cohesive paper. In the sample passage, the writer clearly defines why readers depend on topics: “Topics tell the reader what a passage is ‘about.’”
3. Does the sentence end with interesting information the reader would not anticipate?
In the case of the sample passage, the last sentence has a sharp and unexpected ending. The last few words, “out of focus” are an unexpected way to end the paragraph because the entire paragraph has been about how topics are cohesive tools. Ending on this note leaves the reader feeling uneasy about leaving topics out of context, which is the aim of the sample passage.
On a paragraph level:
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 because by the time we reach a final draft, everything we write seems old or familiar to us. Improving on this takes practice. Try giving yourself a few days between writing and revising to get a fresh look.
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?