Try to keep the editing and proofreading processes separate. If you're worrying about the spelling of a word or the placement of a comma during the revision and editing stages, you're not focusing on the more important development and connection of ideas that make a paper clear and convincing.
For revising and editing guidelines, first see TIP Sheet: Revising and Editing.
Proofreading is the final stage of the writing process when the paper is evaluated for mechanical correctness, such as grammar, punctuation, spelling, omitted words, repeated words, spacing and format, and typographical errors. You should proofread only after you have finished all of your other revisions and editing.
Proofreading is a learning process. You are not just looking for errors; you are also learning to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. Handbooks and dictionaries are important resources. Keep them close at hand as you proofread. If you are not sure about something, look it up.
The proofreading process becomes more efficient as you develop and practice a systematic strategy. Learn to identify the specific areas of your own writing that need careful attention.
Hints for Successful Proofreading
- Set your text aside for awhile (15 minutes, one day, one week) between writing and proofreading. Some distance from the text will help you see mistakes more easily.
- Work from a printout, not the computer screen. Enlarge the print or change the font to give you a new perspective.
- Use a blank sheet of paper or ruler to cover up the lines below the one you're reading. This technique keeps you from skipping ahead of possible mistakes.
- Read very slowly. Read one word at a time. If possible, read out loud so that you can hear each word. Read the entire paper several times, looking for different errors with each reading. Read into a tape recorder, and listen carefully while you play it back.
- Review comments on your old papers, and make a list of errors which were marked frequently. Prioritize your list. Read separately for each kind of error, following whatever technique works best for you to identify that kind of mistake.
Proofreading Strategies for Specific Errors
If you know by reviewing your instructor's comments that you frequently make one or more of the following grammatical errors, try the following suggested strategies to identify and correct your errors. Please note that this is only a limited list of possible mechanical errors. It will be up to you to determine other areas of special concern for you as a writer.
- Examine each word in the paper individually. Move from the end of each line back to the beginning. Pointing with a pencil helps you see each word more distinctly. If necessary, check a dictionary to see that each word is spelled correctly. It is important to remember that a computer spell check can be helpful when writing your initial drafts, but won't catch mistakes with homonyms (such as they're, their, and there) or certain typographical errors (such as writing he for the)
- Find the main verb in each sentence. Match the verb to its subject. Make sure that the subject and verb agree in number (that is, both are singular or both are plural).
- Skim your paper, stopping at each pronoun. Look especially at it, this, they, their, and them. Search for the noun that the pronoun replaces. If you can't find any noun, or if it is unclear which noun is being referred to, 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 at key words that signal parallel structures. Look especially for and, or, not only...but also, either...or, both...and. Make sure that the items connected by these words are in the same grammatical form. For instance, "She likes golf, basketball, and soccer" rather than "She likes golf, basketball, and to play soccer." You might change "He is not only a great piano player but also plays the guitar well" to "He is not only a great piano player but also a good guitar player."
Compound Sentence Commas
- Skim for the conjunctions and, but, for, or, nor, so, and yet. See whether there is a complete sentence (containing a subject and verb) on each side of the conjunction. If so, place a comma before the conjunction.
- Skim your paper, looking only at the first two or three words of each sentence. Stop if one of these words is a subordinate conjunction (such as while, if), a transition word (such as nevertheless, however), a participial phrase (such as serving four years in the Navy, he...), or a prepositional phrase (such as in contrast, about two years ago). If you can hear a break or pause after the phrase when reading aloud, place a comma at the end of the introductory phrase or clause (before the independent clause).
- Look at each sentence to see whether it contains an independent clause (subject and verb). Pay special attention to sentences that begin with subordinate conjunctions (such as because, if, or when) or phrases such as for example or such as. See if the fragment might be just a piece of the previous sentence that mistakenly got separated by a period. If so, attach it to the sentence. If not, add the missing subject or verb.
- Review each sentence to see whether it contains more than one independent clause. Start with the last sentence of your paper, and work your way back to the beginning, sentence by sentence, stopping at every comma. Run-on sentences can be revised four ways. You may make the clauses into separate sentences, join the clauses with a comma followed by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, and yet), join the clauses with a semicolon if the sentences are closely related, or restructure the sentence (for example, by adding a subordinate conjunction).
Plurals and Possessives (Use of apostrophes)
- Skim your paper, stopping only at those words which end in s. See whether or not an apostrophe is needed in order to indicate possession. If the words can be inverted, and Maria's book can be changed to the book of Maria, then the apostrophe is correct. If a word ends in s simply because it is plural, there should be no apostrophe.
Only now should you ask someone else to read through your paper to check for anything you might have missed. By revising, editing, and proofreading on your own first, you will ultimately improve your own ability to write well.