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Proofreading is the last step of a polished essay and typically involves catching glitches at the sentence level, such as spelling and grammatical errors. Although these may be minor mistakes, they can leave a poor impression on your reader, who may be distracted by such flaws from the brilliance of your overall argument. Following are some techniques for proofing your papers with care.
You can practice any of these techniques on your own or with a friend or writng consultant to help:
As a rule, most people find it easier to spot mistakes in print than onscreen. Sure, you can spellcheck your digital document as a first step of proofing your paper, but English spelling being what it is, a spellchecker is not going to catch that you typed "two" when you meant "too."
Tip: Your spellchecker is not always right. It may correctly identify a misspelling, but when it offers an alternative spelling, make sure you really mean to use that word before you accept the suggested correction. Looking it up in a dictionary will confirm both the spelling and the meaning.
If you find yourself stumbling over any word, phrase, or sentence, underline or highlight it and come back to it when you're done reading. Read the confusing sentence aloud again by itself, and see if you can find at least two other ways to say what you really mean there. After you've said the revision out loud, write it down, and try reading the passage again in context. Repeat until satisfied.
Part of the difficulty of proofing your own writing is that when you're reading along, the flow of your own ideas can lull you into missing grammatical errors such as problems withf pronoun agreement or lack of a clear referent for a pronoun. Reading each sentence on its own, against the flow, forces you decide whether it can really stand alone or whether it needs work.
Many mistakes can be fixed by simplifying your sentences. If a sentence rambles on for more than four typed lines, try breaking it into two shorter, simpler sentences. If you're not sure you're using a term correctly even after you look it up, use a word you're more confident about. There's absolutely nothing wrong with using simple sentences and common words in academic writing. Refer to the Grammar Tips page for more help fixing common sentence errors.
Your professor may provide a revision or proofreading checklist of expectations for a particular paper, but everyone has his or her own bugaboos when it comes to frequently misspelled words or repeated grammar mistakes. Making a customized list of things your readers (profs or peer reviewers) often point out in your drafts can help you catch those things most likely to trip you up more easily. A check list helps you focus on the details as you make a separate, systematic proofreading pass through your entire final draft.
For example, in addition to a list of words you look up all the time, you might check for issues such as:
Keep building this personalized proofing list over every semester, across every class you write papers for, and you'll begin to see a pattern of errors that you can correct at the proofreading stage.
Tip: Using the Find feature of your word processor can help you track down your common errors faster. For example, if you overuse "which means" or "that is," you can do a search for those phrases and in each instance make a decision about whether to keep it or not.
"I have rewritten – often several times – every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers." ~Vladimir Nabokov
"The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time – unlike, say, brain surgery." ~Robert Cormier
"The writer must survey his work critically, coolly, as though he were a stranger to it. At the end of each revision, a manuscript may look . . . worked over, torn apart, pinned together, added to, deleted from, words changed and words changed back." ~Eleanor Estes