Our guide to proofreading your work correctly

A guide to proofreading your work the right way

Proofreading isn't fun. But it's one of the most important parts of the essay writing process.

“Why is it so important?”

Put simply, it could be the deciding factor between nailing an A+ or flunking your course. It's your chance to weed out those glaring errors, pry out incorrect grammar, and stomp down those spelling mistakes that litter your essay.

If the piece is poorly written, there's much less chance you're going to get your point across. And your point is the thing that'll decide your grade, right?

But don't worry. As Anne Lamott said in her famous book on writing Bird by Bird:

“The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out”

After the first draft you put the piece through rigorous re-writes and editing tasks.

Then finally, you can get down to proofreading.

And providing you take your time and don't rush through it, everyone can proof their work to a good standard.

So what kinds of things should you be doing and looking out for when proofreading?

Read it again... backwards

One of the problems with proofing is that after we have written the piece, our minds assumes context and more often than not, scans the content from top to bottom. That's because the words you have written are still reasonably fresh in your mind. You'll be able to read through the document quickly, but it also means there's more of a risk you won't spot some glaring spelling errors.

To counteract this try reading the document from the last word upwards. It'll make you consider each and every word without context, helping you catch out any unwanted spelling blunders. It isn't ideal for finding punctuation problems though, as you aren't reading the piece as it's meant to be read.

Scan the page

Now you've carefully dissected the work backwards checking for spelling errors, it's time to take a step back. Don't try and look at anything specific here. Just let your eyes wander over the document, and they'll soon find something that sticks out. It may be an accidental double space, or a subtle change in font size. You might also notice that you've overdone it on a punctuation mark.

This is one of the most effective ways to find format errors.

Don't confuse proofing and editing

Many people presume that editing and proofing a document is the same thing.

If you find yourself making big changes to the text, like rewriting whole paragraphs and sentences, you're in the realm of editing. And that should come before the proofreading phase.

The general consensus is that you shouldn't edit while you write, and you shouldn't edit while you proof. Each task needs your complete attention.

Understand your style

Throughout school you'll have been taught that grammar is a set of rule to which you write. That isn't the case. These ‘rules' should be considered more like a guideline. The reality of it is, the way you punctuate, capitalise, and format is all part of your own style.

Magazines, newspapers, and most universities have their very own ‘house style', to which everyone has to follow. Check if your university has one, and follow it.

If it doesn't and you like to use the Oxford comma, then use it. The key here is to be consistent. If you double space after a full stop, you must use that rule throughout. Inconsistencies stand out like a sore thumb, and proofreading is the ideal time to address them.

Don't trust your spellchecker

Sure, spellchecking software is pretty advance nowadays. So much so that it can pick out homophone errors like its vs. It's.

But it still isn't to be trusted.

“The English language is full of words that are just waiting to be misspelled, and the world is full of sticklers, ready to pounce.” – Mary Norris

Sometimes that red squiggle will pop up under word that you have actually used correctly. Trust the green squiggle even less. That's a grammar checker and it is wrong more often than not.

Many university students presume that Microsoft Word's spellchecker is all the proofreader they need. Heed our warning and don't be fooled. You need to proofread the document to avoid mistakes.

Know your problem words

We all have those words that we consistently miss spell or misuse. You need to make yourself aware of those problem words and check documents carefully for them. If you're unsure of a word's meaning or spelling, look it up.

The best online dictionary that we've found is: http://dictionary.reference.com

On there you check word meanings, find synonyms, and learn all you need to know about a word's origins!

Hire help

Proofreading isn't something that you should rush through. But if you're busy with part time work, or don't think you're up to the challenge of proofing, leave it to a pro. We provide professional academic proofreading services to both students and business professionals.

You can learn more about those services here