Proofreading for Errors

I cannot count the number of times I've turned in a paper, only to discover when it came back that I had made some ridiculous error. For instance, I once began a sentence, "This not is not," which made no more sense in the paper than it does here. I felt somewhat embarrassed. My papers should represent my best work, but here I was, making careless mistakes and showing my professors that I didn't care very much about the assignment. The points I lost for failing to catch these errors are points I could easily have kept if I had simply proofread.

That is why I recommend proofreading. It cuts back on simple errors that detract from your arguments and cost you points. So take the time to proofread, and keep the following pieces of advice in mind.

1. Let Your Paper Sit for a Day

I know that procrastination, or the crush of other commitments, can cause you to write a paper the night before it is due. But even when a last-minute effort leaves you time to revise, the editing won't be effective. Good proofreading depends on your ability to detach yourself from what you have written, and the key to doing this is to allow a day or more to elapse between finishing a draft and revising it.

Once you have had a chance to sleep and to think about matters in life other than your paper, you'll return to the paper with fresh eyes. Sentences that made perfect sense when you wrote them suddenly won't, since you will no longer be in the state of mind that produced your original work. You will be able to view your paper as an outsider and identify problems that eluded you before.

2. Read Your Paper Out Loud

Good writing might not sound like the way you do talk, but it should sound like the way somebody might talk. In other words, if you read your paper out loud and hear something no real person would ever say, then change it. If you struggle to get through a lengthy sentence, cut that sentence down. If you find yourself correcting mistakes to make your paper sound right — adding missing words, for instance — then make sure to enter those corrections on the page.

3. Concentrate on One Issue at a Time

Searching for one kind of error at a time is the surest way to guarantee that you'll find every instance of it. If you just look for errors in general, you probably won't be focused enough on any particular kind to catch everything. This is not to say that you need to proofread your paper separately for every aspect of grammar. Check your previous graded papers to see if you have any recurrent problems to look for. If you have comma splice issues, for instance, then search for those errors specifically when proofreading.

I recommend following a rough order for the proofreading process. Start with the broadest issues of content and structure. Remember; there's no point in fixing an individual sentence if you're going to have to rewrite the whole paragraph to clarify your argument. So concentrate on the paper as a whole, then on paragraphs, and then on sentences.

As you check for sentence-level issues, try reading your paper backwards: not word by word (that doesn't help), but sentence by sentence. This helps you focus on each sentence separately, without getting carried along by the argument.

4. Share Your Paper with a Friend

No matter how long you've let your paper sit, no matter what you do to distance yourself, you will always be the person who wrote it. Your authorship puts an inherent limit on your ability to see the paper as your audience will. Fortunately, the vast majority of the population did not write your paper, so they can approach it with a perspective that you do not have.

Try to avoid having your reader do your sentence-level proofreading for you. By the time you show your paper to someone, you should have the grammar fairly well set. What you really need is an examination of your argument, to see if it makes sense. Your attachment to the paper probably doesn't prevent you from finding your own capitalization errors, but it may prevent you from seeing gaps in your logic. Your reader, on the other hand, will sense that something is missing and alert you to the problem.

For this purpose, you can consider the SAGES Peer Writing Crew and the Writing Resource Center to be your "professional friends." Bring them your paper, and they'll help you make it even better. Even if it's already good.

Improving Your Paper

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