This guide gives "revising" and "proofreading," separate sections, because really they're two different processes. It's easy to confuse the two, especially when a deadline looms, and we find we want to look over a paper as fast as possible before turning it in. Although revising is often a more time-consuming process, proofreading deserves its own separate time and place.. As always this guide advises us to start early, in order to leave enough time near the end of the process.
The Details Matter
Whereas revisions address large-scale structural issues and involves making changes to the argument, proofreading addresses the correct use of language and format, including grammar, style, and APA documentation.
These issues are not simply trivial matters; they have a profound effect on how others perceive our writing, and in today's technologically-mediated world, they also have a profound effect on how others perceive us, particularly if they rarely see us in person.
- How you say what what you say...is what you say. When we need to communicate important information, seemingly minor errors can change the message, creating confusion.
- How you say what you say...is how you appear. Errors in spelling and grammar subtly bias the reader against the writer's argument. Presenting a paper with spelling errors (e.g. in using their/there/they're, or its/it's) is like attending a business meeting in sandals—it makes readers take us less seriously!
- How you cite what you say...is how you present yourself as an expert. Errors in documentation not only place us at risk of plagiarism; they also make it more difficulty for others to understand where we got our information, and to develop further research. They can also decrease our reader's sense that we know what we're talking about, eroding our ethos.
We can proofread effectively in many different ways, so the following instructions are just intended to get us started.
FAQ: Can I automate this?
Many students have asked whether there is an automatic, free, online system to check papers for errors. Let's address this quickly and succinctly: No. Grammar, spelling, and style are too complex for today's technology to handle as yet—particularly the technology available for free on the Internet. I have personally tested 16 of the most popular free online grammar/spell-checkers, and all failed so miserably that it was embarrassing. They simply do not catch 90% or more of egregious errors.
Instead of turning to technology, this guide recommends using your own brain and eyes, in three easy steps:
STEP ONE: Wait
Proofreading effectively means seeing the document clearly, and that means, just as in revising, it's best to wait a day or two after we've finished our final draft. When I go back over a document I've just finished writing, I tend to see what I meant to say, instead of what I actually wrote down, and I've met many who share the same experience. Even egregious spelling, grammatical, or documentation errors just won't register if we just finished writing.
STEP TWO: Alienate
When we do sit down to proofread, it helps to make the document look different, giving us further distance from our original intent in writing. Like most students, I write on a computer, and that means when I turn to proofreading, I often want to print out my document. Everything looks different on paper! It might also be useful to change the font, or the background color.
If possible, it's also useful to have someone else read my text back to me—I catch all kinds of errors when I hear them in someone else's voice, or when I hear someone else stumble over a strange construction.
Finally, perhaps the easiest method for alienation is to partner up with someone else whose grammatical and stylistic skills I trust. I'll read her paper while she reads mine, and we both benefit!
STEP THREE: Corrections
So we're beginning to read—how do we know when we've made mistakes? Some mistakes will be glaringly obvious on a second read-through, but others tend to be a bit sneaky. There are many possible areas to cover, so this guide will only touch upon a few general ideas, and then refer to other resources.
Occam's Stylistic Razor
Once again, this guide borrows from the common logical precept of "Occam's Razor." Occam's razor suggests that the simplest explanation is the best, and so, as we proofread, it will be useful to keep in mind that the simplest sentence is often the best. We may be tempted to "complicate" our writing, so that it "sounds academic," but unless our idea is every bit as complicated as our sentence, we do better to simplify.
It's often easier to tell that there's a problem than to see how to fix it, so this guide provides a brief reference manual to common problems. Most sections include links ot further resources, if we need more information.
- Incomplete or Incoherent Sentences
- Grammatical Mistakes
Written language has inherited most of its features from spoken language, so even though we mostly read silently, it still activates important speech-processing parts of our brains. Punctuation tells us how to breathe. It shapes the words, instructing us when to pause, when to stop, and how to get ready for what's coming next. When it's inaccurate or missing, a reader may effectively "stumble" or "run out of breath"—that is, a reader may get confused about how to understand what we’ve said. Reading aloud and attending carefully to how punctuation shapes our breath can help us identify areas where it might not be working correctly. The following bullet-points suggest additional resources on punctuation, on the Purdue O.W.L. website.
- The Comma. The comma tells us when to take a breath, and also signals the end of a phrase, or an item in a list. The lowly comma is not strong enough to join clauses that might otherwise work as complete sentences on their own. For even more information, see this brief presentation.
- The Semicolon. The semicolon tells us when to breathe and connect to another clause by way of a conjunction. That is, it replaces "and" or "but." Semicolons can join clauses that would otherwise work as separate complete sentences.
- The Period. The period segments our writing into distinct thoughts, giving us a chance to breathe between sentences—but it's important to remember that those thoughts can be quite complicated. The link above provides more information about how to manage complexity within individual sentences.
- The Paragraph Break. Although we don’t often think of the paragraph break as "punctuation," it really does signal a longer pause, a chance to catch our breath before moving on to a new idea.
- Quotation Marks. These help us change "register” within a paragraph—notice how the word "register" feels different in these sentences? Quotation marks make the enclosed words feel different from their surroundings, either to indicate that they are a special term or phrase, or to indicate that they came from another source.
- Standardized spelling helps readers remain confident that they are interpreting our work correctly—homophones like they’re/their/there can damage or destroy our readers' confidence. We shouldn't assume that our word processor's spell-check program is going to catch everything, since many words might "look" or "sound" right, but may not be spelled correctly for the context. In addition to the specific section below, I recommend the Purdue O.W.L.’s section on proofreading for errors.
- The Apostrophe. Technically a matter of punctuation, the apostrophe actually works more like another "letter," letting us know what kind of word we're dealing with. Apostrophes should mainly be used to indicate possessives and contractions (the latter of which are sometimes outlawed for formal writing).
Incomplete or Incoherent Sentences
- Ordinarily, sentences have a subject (an actor, a "do-er"), and a verb (the action, what's being done); often they have an object (what's being "done-to"). If a sentence lacks one of these main elements, or if it has too many of them without organizing them correctly, then it may become grammatically incorrect, or at the very least difficult to read. Here are some common problems:
- Fragments. These sentences lack either a subject or a verb.
- Run-ons. These sentences have too many Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) sequences, without clearly subordinating some of them to one main Subject-Verb sequence. For more information on subordination, see the Purdue O.W.L.'s subordination page.
- Comma Splices. The lowly comma is not enough to connect two complete sentences.
- Agreement. Especially in complex writing, it’s easy to lose track of the relationship between subject and verb, but these should agree in number, and all verbs should use tense appropriately. For more information on tense, see this guide's section How Do I Start? - Part 2: Writing.
Common Grammatical Mistakes
- Academic writing, in particular, lends itself to a few common but problematic grammatical constructions. Strong, clear writing assigns the "subject" role to persons, groups of people, or organizations, and uses clear, specific verbs to designate action. Academic writing, all too often, puts abstract concepts in the "subject" role, and assigns them vague actions—usually little more than variants on "to be." Such constructions might not make trouble if they only appear once or twice in a large writing project, but they tend to come in flocks, and that's a problem. Overall, we should watch out for the verb "to be" in all its forms, and see if we can rebuild sentences that use it.
- There Is / There are: If too many sentences start with "there is" or "there are," the sentences themselves will be bulky, and the structure will get repetitive.
- Example: There are many ethical issues that a social worker must consider. (The sentence's primary subject is the vague pronoun place-holder "there," and the primary verb is "are," a weak verb.)
- Example Corrected: Social workers must consider many ethical issues, as codified in the NASW Code of Ethics. (The sentence’s primary subject is “social workers,” a clear, specific category of real people, and the primary verb is “must consider,” a relatively clear and specific verb.)
- Another...is...: Another common problem for academic writing is the one that this sentence demonstrates: starting a sentence with "another problem..." or "another way...". This sentence structure quickly gets repetitive, and it detracts from our argument by transforming it into more of a list. Perhaps even more importantly, though, it’s grammatically complicated, and in a way that will create contorted sentences, not to mention errors.
- Example: Another common problem for academic writing is the “another...is..." construction. (The sentence's subject is "problem,"” a vague, abstract concept, and the verb is “is,” a weak verb.)
- Example Corrected: The "another... is..." construction can also cause trouble in academic writing. (Here, the sentence's subject is the phrase "the 'another...is...' construction," a clear and specific concept, and the verb phrase is "can cause trouble," which is strong and specific.)
- Nominalizations: Like their name, nominalizations transform a verb (to nominalize) into a noun, by adding a suffix like "-tion." Nominalizations tempt us because they compact an action into a one-word kernel, but used together, they create opacity, as well as proliferating "of the" clauses. For a humorous discussion of nominalizations and how they impede clear writing, see Helen Sword’s column on "Zombie Nouns."
- Example: The separation between producers and their means of production, the commodification of labor, and the private ownership of means of production on the basis of the control of capital (commodified surplus), determined the basic principle of appropriation and distribution of surplus (citation withheld). (The sentence’s subjects are "separation" and "ownership," both abstract nominalizations, and huge bundles of prepositional phrases crowd the space between them and their verb, "determined.")
- Example Corrected: Those in power appropriate and control surplus by separating producers from their means of production, turning labor into a commodity, and only allowing those with great capital to own the means of production. (The sentence’s main subject is "those in power," a specific group of people, and it appears right next to the main verbs, "appropriate" and "control." This construction sets up a clear actor and action, a relationship that helps the reader make sense of what follows. The nominalization "production" remains—nominalizations are handy sometimes, but it's best to get rid of the other 7 nominalized verbs in the above example!)
- Passive Voice: Because they remove a sentence's subject and create a "to be" verb, passive voice constructions are weaker, and make reading more difficult. That means they should be avoided, except where required, and even then, there are correct and incorrect usages. For further information, see the Purdue OWL page on Passive Voice.
- Passive Voice Used Incorrectly: “That means they should be avoided.” Yes, this guide itself is not immune. For some examples that demonstrate how to change passive to active voice, see the Purdue OWL page.
- Passive Voice Used Correctly—to describe data-collection activity: “Fourteen subjects were interviewed.” For more examples of useful passive-voice moments, see the Purdue OWL page on Using Passive Voice.